There’s been an almost too-luxurious break between matches for the Rowdies, who are more than ready to play their penultimate regular-season game at Miami tonight.
Tampa Bay’s last game was Sept. 16 at Atlanta. After that, it had four days off before returning to Al Lang Stadium for training Monday.
During their 10-day layoff, the Rowdies have maintained their lead atop their group in the United Soccer League Championship, thanks primarily to a 95th-minute goal by captain Sebastian Guenzatti to prevail at Atlanta.
“It shows just how hard we worked, and it paid off,” said Guenzatti, who leads Tampa Bay with seven goals. “We’re getting to the part of the season that’s the most important. It was good to come back Monday and get to practice.”
The Rowdies already have clinched a playoff spot in a league restructuring forced by the coronavirus. The top two finishers in each of eight groups — the Rowdies are in Group H — make the postseason.
Group winners will be paired with group runnersup in the first round. Home advantage will be determined by records in a team’s bracket. Groups A-D are in a Western Conference bracket, Groups E-F in an Eastern Conference bracket.
The Group H winner is all but assured of homefield advantage through at least the first two rounds.
Helping keep the Rowdies (9-2-3, 30 points) three points ahead of second-place Charleston in Group H: The Battery’s scheduled midweek match did not get played due to multiple positive coronavirus tests among members of Loudoun. On Friday, the league said Loudoun’s three remaining games have been cancelled and introduced a points-per-game formula to potentially settle playoff standings.
Because Loudoun is a one-win team with a minus-18 scoring margin, Tampa Bay had been planning on being tied for first place in Group H when it boarded the bus to Miami. Instead, there is now a scenario in which the Rowdies could clinch first in the group early, but it must start with a win today.
The Rowdies twice have topped Miami by 3-0 scores.
“I really feel like we’re in a good place,” coach Neill Collins said. “We’ve won a lot of games. We’re getting better. The mood in the camp’s better. I just want the team to keep progressing the way they have, maintain the consistency.”
Some of his most consistent scoring threats — Malik Johnson, Lucky Mkosana and Juan Tejada — may still be out tonight because of injuries. Yann Ekra, another key contributor in the midfield, also is questionable, Collins said.
Miami (2-7-4, 10 points) comes off an impressive scoreless draw at Charlotte, a team that had won four straight and is tied with Birmingham for the Group G lead at 25 points. Tampa Bay and Charleston will pair up with those teams to start the playoffs.
Charleston plays Miami on Wednesday before coming to St. Petersburg for the regular-season finale Oct. 3. After that game, the league will tabulate how many points Charleston has averaged in its 15 games, and the Battery will be credited that number on top of its points total.
Simply stated, the Rowdies will win their group if they equal or better Charleston’s output in the final two games.