ST. PETERSBURG — While some USL Championship teams were sweating out their playoff fate right up to the regular season’s final whistle, the Tampa Bay Rowdies had a spot clinched weeks ago.
True pressure has been relatively light on Tampa Bay. But that all changes Saturday night. It’s win-or-be-done time. The Rowdies (10-3-3) welcome Birmingham Legion FC to Al Lang for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
“I really have no doubt the players will bring the intensity,” coach Neill Collins said. Though playoffs were assured, he said the team’s late-season quest for the top overall seed kept them on their toes.
Tampa Bay will be aided by a lot more atmosphere and vocal support. Late Friday the club said there was a limited number of tickets remaining. This after the Rowdies increased allowed attendance to around 1,500, up from just 150 per game during most of the regular season.
Saturday’s combatants drew 1-1 in their lone regular-season meeting, but that was back on July 25. It was Tampa Bay’s first road trip after the four-month season pause due to the coronavirus. Sebastian Guenzatti scored early in the second half to answer an early Legion goal.
“A lot’s changed since then,” Collins said. “It’s probably good for both teams that we have faced each other. In that moment I thought we had one of our better performances.”
Birmingham, like the Rowdies, has long stood in good shape for an overall playoff berth. But the Legion (7-5-4) struggled down the stretch, winning just one of their final six games to be overtaken by Charlotte for the Group G title.
Birmingham’s point total (25) matches the fewest of any of the Championship’s 16 postseason participants, something Collins disregards.
“It’s the playoffs. And (current) form goes out the window because guys are playing to stay alive. We know Birmingham will come here very resilient, very hard working, very organized, and ready to try and spoil the party,” Collins said.
And they boast a pair of dangerous weapons on offense. Neco Brett and Bruno Lapa are among the Eastern Conference’s top-10 goal scorers with nine and seven, respectively. The Jamaica-born Brett has been prolific since entering the league, scoring 32 goals across his first two seasons with Pittsburgh (adding 17 assists). Lapa, a Brazilian, is in his rookie season out of Wake Forest.
Birmingham’s 29 goals scored were fourth best in the conference, while the Rowdies converted 25. Guenzatti paces the Rowdies with eight goals, Leo Fernandes scored four, and big center back Forrest Lasso is the only other player with more than two.
“We might not have the fanciest team. We might not be the prettiest, but the mentality of this team is so strong and I think that’s very important,” Guenzatti said.
Certainly the Rowdies were strong defensively, with the second-fewest goals conceded (11) in the entire 35-team league. Goalkeeper Evan Louro’s seven shutouts are good for second.
“At least for me, this is a win-or-bust year,” Louro said. “We have the talent, the quality in the group, the mentality. We have everything that we need. I think when the lights come on, we’ll respond.”
Last weekend’s regular-season finale loss to Charleston prevented Tampa Bay from having the best record in the East, but the Rowdies still are assured of at least one more home playoff date if they prevail against Birmingham. Tampa Bay would get the Charlotte-Charleston winner in the second round at Al Lang.
“To challenge for the Eastern Conference title, the top seed in the USL, when you’ve got that aim… of course there was disappointment, the way we performed (against Charleston) was the biggest disappointment,” Collins said. “But quite quickly, you then get back in and you’re ready to play a home playoff game.”
This weekend’s hosts are all group winners, with the remaining rounds to be played at the site of the team with the better record.
“That’s the 12th man, the atmosphere, the support they can create. And that’s definitely a big factor for us,” Collins said. “As I say, we need the players to bring the intensity. We need the fans that are in the stadium to bring everything. They should be super proud of this team.”