ST. PETERSBURG — To save their historic season, the Rowdies will have to take down the back-to-back defending United Soccer League champion when they face off with Louisville City FC on Saturday night at 7.
No. 5 Tampa Bay and No. 4 Louisville drew twice in their first two meetings of the season. The last result, 2-2 at Louisville Slugger Field, required a late Tampa Bay comeback with only 10 men on the pitch to salvage a point on the road. The Rowdies return to what likely will be a packed stadium in Louisville for the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
“We know that Louisville has really finished the season strongly, but we believe we’re going to be good in there and give them a few problems even though it’s on their home field,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins. “We’ve proved that we can win on the road, and we’re ready to go win on the road again.”
Tampa Bay didn’t expect to be in this position while racing off to a league-best start, going the first 13 matches of the season without a loss. The Rowdies didn’t expect to be here a month ago when, after downing Bethlehem 6-1 on Sept. 21, they were positioned for a top-four seed and a home playoff match. Now, after a four-match winless streak to end the season, including a loss to 17th-place Hartford Athletic in the regular-season finale, the Rowdies are forced to go on the road for their first playoff game since 2017.
“We would have liked to have finished stronger, but the great thing is, the form goes out the window when you get into the playoffs,” Collins said. “If you can’t motivate yourselves for the playoffs, you’ve got a big problem, so I think the lads will be ready to go Saturday night.”
Louisville City will move into the new soccer-specific Lynn Family Stadium next season. But in the meantime, Louisville Slugger Field presents unique challenges to visiting clubs. The playing surface, mostly a natural grass baseball outfield, overlaps with the infield dirt. Louisville lays turf over the dirt, creating two different playing surfaces on the pitch. Fans affectionately refer to the field as the “turf monster” because players will occasionally slip as they run from one surface to the other.
“The field is tough, everybody knows that in the league, but those aren’t excuses,” said Tampa Bay captain Sebastian Guenzatti. “At the end of the day, both teams are going to be competing on the same field.”
To make the home-field advantage even more daunting for rival clubs, Louisville usually fills the stands. The club averaged 9,041 fans over 17 regular-season games this season, the fourth-highest total in the USL Championship.
Louisville has never lost a playoff game at home and they have suffered only one loss in their past 13 matches dating to Aug. 3. Tampa Bay is coming off its best regular season in the modern era (since 2010). Saturday night, something has to give.
“At the end of the game, if you hold something back, you’re going to regret it,” Guenzatti said. “There’s no more holding back. We have to go out there to win.”
Watch party at Al Lang
The Rowdies will host a watch party at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday. Admission is free, and fans can bring in outside food and blankets to watch the match on the video board. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. The game will also be broadcast on ESPN+.