There isn’t as much on the line Saturday night as the Rowdies and Charleston had expected.
Because of Miami’s comeback from a two-goal deficit to beat Charleston on Wednesday, the Rowdies have already clinched first place in their United Soccer League Championship group and are assured of homefield advantage through at least two rounds of the playoffs.
But it should still be quite the battle at Al Lang Stadium in the Rowdies' regular-season finale (7:30; stream on ESPN+). That’s due to the entertaining combination of Tampa Bay facing far less pressure and Charleston likely being an ornery group.
Tampa Bay (10-2-3, 33 points) and Charleston (8-3-3, 27) have been the clear-cut playoff teams from Group H. (In the league’s revamped look forced by the coronavirus this season, the top two teams in each of eight groups make the playoffs.) But before Wednesday, tonight was to be the decisive match for group supremacy and homefield advantage.
Charleston led Miami 3-1 early in the second half. Then Miami, which had two wins in its first 14 matches, scored four more times — against a team that has twice shut out the Rowdies this season.
“Miami played last night?” Rowdies coach Neill Collins quipped on a Thursday media call. “It was a great game, and Miami, to play the way they did when they effectively had nothing to play for … obviously the result benefits us.”
The Rowdies can be assured of a potentially longer home stay by winning Saturday night. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, Tampa Bay has one more point than Louisville and Hartford, leaders of Group E and H, respectively. If at least one of those teams wins, Tampa Bay would have to defeat Charleston to claim homefield advantage throughout the Eastern Conference portion of the postseason. The playoff setup has Groups A-D playing in a Western Conference bracket for a spot in the league championship and Groups E-H playing in an Eastern Conference bracket for a spot.
The Rowdies are in a great spot, but they have to beat a team that has shut them out on two straight occasions.
“(Charleston has) been really good when they’ve beaten us, but I look at myself in the mirror, we were inhibiting ourselves,” said Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso. "We weren’t perfect. We let the foot off the gas. We maybe tried to cheat a corner or two. I can hold my hand up and know that I can do better defensively.
“At times this year our biggest opponent has been ourselves. If we iron out the few wrinkles that we may have in our shirt, it’s going to be tough for anybody else to beat us.”
Tampa Bay does have a home win over Charleston, on July 31. “We’re already in the playoffs, which takes a little pressure off things,” Lasso said. “(Tonight) we’ve got a job to handle. That’s on the forefront.”
Collins said midfielder Malik Johnson remains out with an injury. There was hope forward Juan Tejada could play, he also might be out.