ST. PETERSBURG — The prospect of securing a home playoff match at Al Lang Stadium will hang in the balance when the Tampa Bay Rowdies hit the road to challenge Hartford Athletic in Saturday night’s regular-season finale.
The Rowdies (16-7-10, 58 points) have a loose grip on fourth place in the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference, leading two rival clubs by only one point. With a win on Saturday, Tampa Bay will clinch a top-four seed and the right to host a conference quarterfinal on Saturday, Oct. 26. With a loss or draw in Connecticut, Tampa Bay risks tumbling to fifth or sixth place and going back on the road for the quarterfinals.
“There’s no added pressure,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins. “I expect just to go there, put on a performance, win a game of football and then come back here and play our first playoff game.”
The playoff picture cleared up some for Tampa Bay when the fifth-place New York Red Bulls II lost 2-1 to Birmingham on Wednesday night. New York is now winless in its past five matches dating to Sept. 18. A Rowdies win will fend off New York (17-10-6, 57 points) and Louisville City FC (16-8-9, 57 points) in playoff seeding.
Hartford (7-21-5, 26 points) has floundered through its inaugural season and dwells in the cellar of the USL table, but the league newcomer showed signs of life with a 4-0 rout of Birmingham in its last match Oct. 9.
“Hartford’s a tougher team than people think,” said Rowdies goalkeeper John McCarthy. “We can’t underestimate them, and we have to play our game.”
Since downing Bethlehem 6-1 on Sept. 21, the Rowdies are winless over their past three matches. Tampa Bay delayed the chance to secure a top-four seed until the season finale after drawing with Louisville in Kentucky, losing to Loudoun United in Virginia and drawing with Indy Eleven at Al Lang.
“It should have been done by now,” Collins said. “We’ve got an opportunity to put that to bed on Saturday and make sure that we get a home game.”
For McCarthy, a first-year Rowdie who has never played a home playoff match in his professional career, Saturday’s goal is simple. Just win.
“We know what we have to do,” McCarthy said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody else does. We have to get three points.”
With a Rowdies draw, a win by either New York or Louisville will drop Tampa Bay out of the top four. With a loss, the Rowdies would only stay in the top four if New York and Louisville also lose. New York faces Loudoun United on the road Saturday, and Louisville will be away at Memphis 901 FC.
“Hopefully we get it and come back to a packed house” McCarthy said. “The fans deserve it and we deserve it as a club.”
While Tampa Bay is hoping for a home playoff game, Collins is confident in his team no matter where they play.
“We’re not reliant on our home form. We’ve won on the road,” Collins said. “Whatever comes, we’re on the road at some point in time, and the team has showed they can do that.”
Contact Ryan Kolakowski at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @RyanKolakowski.