KENNESAW, Ga. — Moments away from one of the more disappointing playoff-clinching results a team could have, the Rowdies produced a far better one Wednesday night.
Sebastian Guenzatti scored in the fifth and final minute of stoppage time, giving the Rowdies a 2-1 victory over Atlanta United 2.
“That’s the top feeling in sport,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins says of the winner in the closing seconds, Guenzatti’s team-leading seventh goal of the season. “You’re never going to have textbook victories all the time. Sometimes you have to score late to win.”
Tampa Bay (9-2-3, 30 points) was playoff-bound with a draw or a Miami loss. Getting the victory allows the Rowdies to maintain their lead atop the USL Championship’s Group H standings.
Charleston, which beat Miami 4-0 Wednesday, is six points behind, although with two games in hand. Charleston most likely will have to defeat the Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium on Oct. 3 to win the group. But Tampa Bay could clinch before then should Charleston slip up. Group winners host a first-round playoff match.
Tampa Bay completed a 4-0 season sweep against Atlanta, which had its chances. Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro made a diving save on Jack Gurr’s long-range shot through traffic in the 77th minute.
Gurr, who has one goal this season, almost struck again on a rebound in the 92nd minute, but the Rowdies' Leo Fernandes had a clutch block with Louro pulled out of the goal.
Then in the final minute of stoppage, Tampa Bay’s Sebastian Dalgaard came up with a big steal and fed Guenzatti. The Rowdies captain worked his way into the penalty box and took a shot that deflected off a defender and settled into the left side of the net.
“Great ball from Lewis Hilton and then Seb Dalgaard, who’s one of the unsung heroes this season. Great piece of desire to win the ball,” Collins said, “pick out (Guenzatti), and that’s the reason he’s on the pitch in the 95th minute. We know if a ball falls to him, he’s as likely as anyone to put it in.”
Fifteen seconds after the restart following the goal, the whistle blew and the Rowdies celebrated. Not only does Tampa Bay maintain control of the group, it retakes the lead in the Eastern Conference over Pittsburgh (28 points).
Tampa Bay outshot Atlanta 9-3 in the first half, but goalkeeper Vicente Reyes made some big stops, particularly on a dipping shot by Yann Ekra and a blast by Guenzatti. The Rowdies broke through in the 52nd minute off their eighth corner kick of the match, Forrest Lasso scoring on a header, with an assist by Fernandes.
A few minutes later the wet conditions helped Atlanta tie it as Phillip Goodrum fired in a cross that Rowdies defender Jordan Scarlett, while losing his footing, awkwardly tried to control, knocking it into his own goal.
“I would say up to that point, total control (for the Rowdies). I thought we were going to get our second, but losing a goal against the complete run of play definitely gave them impetus and rocked us a little bit,” Collins said. “That’s the kind of goals that tend to happen when the conditions are like that. But the temperature was excellent, and you could see the effort the boys were able to put in knowing they could keep going, because they weren’t getting drained by the humidity.”
The Rowdies have plenty of time to dry off and rest with nine days before their next match, at Miami.
“Well deserved … days off,” Collins said. “It’s great for them to get away, recharge and certainly come back strong. As I said, they deserve it.”