ST. PETERSBURG — With a shortened United Soccer League Championship season and a revamped division alignment, the Rowdies have gotten overly familiar with Atlanta, Charleston and Miami.
After playing their past seven games against those three other Group H members, the Rowdies face a different team Sunday night when Philadelphia visits Al Lang Stadium (7:30, ESPN+)
“We’ve gotten into that rhythm of playing the same teams, and it’s been unusual,” coach Neill Collins said. “And now it feels unusual that we’re playing someone different.”
Philadelphia — in Group F in the league’s new eight-group setup forced by the coronavirus season shutdown — has the Rowdies topped when it comes to crazy schedules and circumstances. It returned to action for the first time in exactly four weeks Wednesday, losing 2-1 to Atlanta at home.
After a positive coronavirus test in the organization, Philadelphia’s Aug. 9 game and the next two were postponed. Its final month of the season now contains nine matches.
Tampa Bay is trying to fend off Charleston for first place in Group H. Though the Rowdies lead the group in points (7-1-3, 24 points), Charleston has 21 after a 1-1 draw with Miami on Saturday.
Though playoff qualification is not in doubt for the Rowdies — the top two teams in each group make the postseason, and Tampa Bay could clinch a spot this weekend — winning the group is important. There’s a not-too-outlandish scenario in which the Group H runnerup could have the second-best record among the usual Eastern Conference teams, yet have to travel for the first two rounds of the playoffs. In past years (no groups, just two conferences), those first two matches were guaranteed to be at home.
The Rowdies have five matches left in the regular season, including an Oct. 3 finale against Charleston.
“Charleston are going to push us all the way,” Collins said. “The proof will be in what’s on the field and what the results are. We’re really going into this period (of the season) with a lot of guys fit, lot of guys in good form. Competition on the squad’s as high as it’s ever been. It’s an exciting month to look forward to.”
Though the defensive trio of Forrest Lasso, Aaron Guillen and Jordan Scarlett has played nearly every minute (Lasso missing just a half), the Rowdies last week signed 25-year-old Englishman Alexander Davey.
“He fits right in with the squad,” Collins said. “Our defensive record’s been excellent, but that’s when you strengthen, as opposed to waiting. That was a lesson from last year,” a reference to the Rowdies’ 2019 fast start that fizzled into a first-round playoff defeat.
Scarlett scored his first goal of the season to start off a 3-0 Rowdies victory over Miami on Wednesday, off a solid corner kick delivery from midfielder Lewis Hilton. Tampa Bay has six header goals, and Hilton has provided three assists, all off set pieces.
“I’ve always wanted to take the set pieces,” Hilton said. “I’m kind of a player that always wants to be involved. And I think the other night showed how important (those) can be.”
Tampa Bay’s three goals Wednesday came off a corner, a free kick and a penalty.
Hilton, also from England, joined the Rowdies in the offseason after splitting his first four USL seasons between Charlotte and Saint Louis.
“The squad that we’ve got is just a step up from anything I’ve been at before,” he said.
He agreed that it’ll be nice to play someone new: “To play a team that we’ve not played this season, it’s a fine opportunity and makes it a little more of a fresher challenge as well.”
In Philadelphia’s return to action Wednesday, Sean Bettenhausen, 17, and Jack Jasinski, 16, became the latest members of the franchise’s academy to get USL Championship starts. Paxten Aaronson, who turned 17 last week and is another academy player, scored his first goal.
On Aug. 5, Philadelphia parted ways with coach Sven Gartung, then hours later grabbed its first win of the season, 3-2 against New York Red Bulls II. Interim leader Marlon LeBlanc is also the academy coach. Philadelphia has been outscored 22-7 this season.
“We’re not handicapping ourselves or judging ourselves against other people,” Collins said. “We’re looking at winning on Sunday. It will be great if we (clinch) the playoffs, but why set the standards as ‘Oh, we’re in the playoffs, now we can relax.’ We don’t want to set restrictions on this group of lads.”