ST. PETERSBURG — Whether the Rowdies would emerge with a victory late Sunday was barely in question, provided the game got under way. After a 2½-hour weather delay, Tampa Bay indeed produced a 2-0 victory over Philadelphia Union II at Al Lang Stadium.
The victory for the Rowdies (8-1-3, 27 points) — against a team whose average starter was all of 17 years old — cemented their lead atop Group H to six points. A draw in Friday’s trip to second-place Charleston would all but lock up the top spot and secure a playoff berth.
“Never be disappointed when you win,” coach Neill Collins said. “Definitely we should have had more goals, but at the same token, we were pleased with the result.”
Sunday’s victory reclaimed the top seed for the Rowdies in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh is second with 25, then a three-point drop to third-place Birmingham. Miami FC has an outside shot of catching the Rowdies, needing to win its last seven matches and Tampa Bay lose its four. Miami also would need to make up a 25-goal difference.
Miami got the Rowdies’ weekend off to a smashing start, scoring late for a 1-1 draw against Charleston on Saturday.
Not long after the Rowdies’ 9:56 p.m. kickoff — a delay of 2 hours, 26 minutes due to a torrential storm and lightning in the area — they had the lead.
Defender Aaron Guillen’s ball from midfield found Malik Johnson in the penalty box, and he delivered a first-touch pass into open space. Johnson’s cross was received by Sebastian Guenzatti, who in tight space used his leg as a board to deflect it into the goal.
Guenzatti’s sixth-minute goal was his team-high sixth of the season.
There could have been a handful more goals in the first half as the Rowdies outshot Philadelphia 15-6. Leo Fernandes was a candidate for at least three assists, prime among them a curling ball that Zach Steinberger fired barely wide. And Fernandez delivered a Sportscenter-candidate backwards pass that Guenzatti volleyed well but was saved.
Philadelphia 17-year-old midfielder Paxten Aaronson, whose older brother (and national team member) Brenden scored for the Union’s MLS club earlier in the day, almost duplicated the feat but hit the crossbar in the 17th minute.
For all their would-be goals, the Rowdies went up 2-0 on one that should have been stopped. Steinberger got into the left side of the penalty box and cut back a pass for Yann Ekra, whose shot was savable but mishandled by Mitchell Budler.
The game almost took a turn on the last kick of the half. Philadelphia’s Danny Flores broke in and appeared to have Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro beat, but his shot hooked inches wide of the left post.
In the second half Tampa Bay didn’t have quite the dominance of play or numerous scoring chances.
The half also featured one of the most entertaining yellow cards the Rowdies will be called for this season. Louro went out of his box to play a ball and decided to play catch while blasting it against one of the sideline advertising boards, drawing a card. He finished with his sixth shutout of the season.
The final shot count was 22-10 for the game, which ended a few minute before midnight.
“Some of these guys are hopping in their bed by 11 p.m. most nights, so to be out playing must be a bit surreal,” Collins said. “And the opposition, credit them for their performance. Lot of good young players there.”
Tampa Bay has four games left in the regular season, the next three on the road, starting with Friday’s at Charleston.
Tampa Bay was without forward Juan Tejada, who was seen on crutches Sunday, a result of rolling his ankle in practice earlier in the weekend. “I don’t expect him to be out for too long,” Collins said.