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Rowdies set for Group H showdown against Charleston Battery at Al Lang Stadium

Tampa Bay leads the group with eight points; Charleston is second with six.

The Rowdies’ biggest challenger in its United Soccer League Championship group visits Al Lang Stadium tonight.

Charleston travels from South Carolina to St. Petersburg for the first of four meetings between the teams. It is second in Group H with six points, two behind the first-place Rowdies. A Tampa Bay loss could swing the standings.

The top two teams from each of the eight groups created for play in the coronavirus-altered season advance to the playoffs.

Coach Neill Collins has said repeatedly that the Rowdies are taking the season one game at a time. But he acknowledged the weight behind playing teams within the Rowdies’ group multiple times in the coming weeks.

“I think it would be great to get off to a good start against someone that we’ve got to play another three times,” Collins said on a Zoom call Wednesday. “But on the same token, if you drop the points, you’ve got three opportunities to try and pick them back up against them directly.”

Charleston (2-1-0) and Tampa Bay (2-0-2) have a common win over Atlanta United 2. Charleston beat Atlanta, another Group H team, twice — once before the season was suspended in March because of the coronavirus and once after. Tampa Bay beat Atlanta in its home opener three weeks ago. The two teams had varying results against Birmingham Legion FC, their other common opponent. Charleston lost 2-1 to Birmingham while the Rowdies played the club to a 1-1 draw on the road last week.

The offensive attack for Charleston, which has a plus-3 goal differential to the Rowdies’ plus-2, is led by Zeiko Lewis. The midfielder paces the team with two goals and one assist. Charleston’s defense has come away with two shutouts, both against Atlanta.

Tampa Bay had a shutout win in its season opener against New York in March but has not gotten one since.

The Rowdies took the season series in 2019 with a 1-1 draw at Al Lang and a dominant 5-0 win in South Carolina.

Collins said Wednesday that everyone was available for tonight. That hasn’t been the case the past few weeks. Midfielders Yann Ekra and Malik Johnson have played 46 combined minutes in four games because of injuries.

Three games into the resumed season, Collins said the team is getting to where it needs to be in terms of game shape and chemistry. And he expects the Rowdies to make up for their second-half collapse at home two weeks ago in a 2-2 draw with North Carolina, in which they lost a 2-0 lead in the second half..

“You always put more emphasis on winning those home games,” Collins said. “So the players will be really keen to find a better performance in the last 45 (minutes) than they had at Al Lang. And I really believe that they will do that.”

Contact Kyle Wood at Follow @Kkylewood.