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Birmingham Legion FC presents tough road test for Rowdies

The squad has a plus-4 goal differential, fourth-best in the USL Championship.

The resumption of the USL Championship season was kind to the Rowdies. Tampa Bay had back-to-back home games to ease into play and neither came against the league’s top teams.

This weekend, the Rowdies leave the comfort of Al Lang Stadium for a road trip to Alabama to face the surging Birmingham Legion FC.

“It’s always gonna be difficult to win away,” said Rowdies defender Mustapha Dumbuya. “That’s their fortress.”

The two teams split the season series, 1-1, in 2019, Birmingham’s first in the USL Championship. The road team won each game. The Rowdies won 2-0 in Birmingham, and Birmingham left St. Petersburg with a 1-0 victory.

“Birmingham’s a really strong team,” head coach Neill Collins said. “They’ve improved in the offseason after a really strong finish to the season last year. This is just a good test for us.”

Birmingham did not play in March before the season was suspended. Since it resumed, the club beat Memphis 901 FC 3-0 and Charleston Battery 2-1. The road win over Charleston helped propel Birmingham nine spots up to No. 8 in the USL Championship power rankings. The Rowdies fell one spot to No. 4.

Birmingham’s plus-4 goal differential is fourth-best in the league, and forward Bruno Lapa and midfielder Jonathan Dean are responsible for much of the team’s offensive attack. Lapa has three goals in two games and was named USL Championship Player of the Week last week. Dean has assisted on three of the team’s five goals.

The creator and finisher for the Rowdies has been Leo Fernandes. The veteran midfielder has three goals in three games to go with one assist. He logged a goal and an assist in the Rowdies’ 2-2 draw with North Carolina FC last week.

Collins may be without midfielders Yann Ekra and Dominic Oduro, who missed last week’s game, against Birmingham. They both have lingering injuries from the win over Atlanta United 2 two weeks ago. Collins said they would be game-time decisions, as they were last week.

The Rowdies and Birmingham are at the top of Group H and G, respectively. However, Collins is not too invested in the league standings right now, even though the team holds a league-best point advantage.

“All these teams are going to play each other four times,” Collins said, referencing the Group H teams and noting that Miami FC has not yet resumed its season. “That makes it much more level, as well, because you know that you can claw back points if you beat the same team twice.”

Tampa Bay only plays Birmingham once, but with both clubs being well situated in their groups early on, a postseason rematch isn’t out of the question for the two Eastern Conference teams.

“Who’s to say that this game won’t replay at some point down the line in the playoffs?” Collins said. “But right now, honestly, I’m really just focused on us going down there and putting on a good performance and giving ourselves the chance to win.”

Contact Kyle Wood at kwood@tampabay.com. Follow @Kkylewood.

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