ST. PETERSBURG — The story lines are there to be dramatized, but the Rowdies are having none of it. At least publicly.
Charleston, the only team to top Tampa Bay this USL Championship season — and managing it three straight times at that — is the visitor for today’s much-anticipated Eastern Conference semifinal at Al Lang Stadium.
“You might not believe me, but honestly I couldn’t care less who we’re playing on Saturday,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “I could not care less. I want to get to the Eastern Conference final. The fact that it’s Charleston, is fine. (But) it won’t mean any more beating Charleston, because we’re focused on the Rowdies and what we want to do.”
While the Battery’s bulletin board might lack for action, it’s safe to assume there will be plenty on the pitch tonight. Especially using the most recent clash, Charleston’s last-minute 2-1 win in St. Pete on Oct. 3, as a guide.
And if the intensity matches that one, all of Collins' efforts to downplay the hype level go out the window quickly. The teams combined for nine yellow cards with the Rowdies called for 18 fouls, more than a few of which they felt were embellishments on the Charleston side.
In South Carolina on Aug. 29 there were 17 fouls apiece. Tampa Bay’s infractions across those two games registered a full six above their average.
So tonight could come down to reaction as much as action. Tampa Bay (11-3-3) showed capacity to keep its cool last week, shaking off two quick, tying goals by Birmingham, scoring two of its own for an entertaining 4-2 win in the first round.
“This will be our fifth meeting in the space of three months,” Collins said. “We look at the game that we won (2-0 on July 31), some people forget that … the losses, very tight games. We obviously understand there’s aspects of our performance that need to be better, but it’s not about beating yourself up about it, it’s about learning from it. We’ve not backed down from them.”
Based on standings and playoff seed, Tampa Bay was the better team this season. But Charleston (10-3-3) could certainly argue otherwise considering it won three straight. It’s most accurate to say the Rowdies had a better season, barely, with a baffling loss where the Battery blew a 3-1 lead at Miami the slim difference.
And all of that will mean precisely zero come Saturday around 9:30 p.m. Or later if the game goes overtime, such was the case for Charleston, which claimed a 2-1 thriller at Charlotte last weekend.
Lucky Mkosana, who rifled in a header off fellow sub Malik Johnson’s masterful cross for last week’s Rowdies winner, was injured for both of Tampa Bay’s 1-0 defeats at Charleston. The first was hotly contested, while the Battery dominated the Sept. 11 affair, holding the Rowdies to three shots.
Then in the home season finale Tampa Bay got a tying goal from Forrest Lasso only for Stavros Zarokostas to net his second of the game for a 2-1 Charleston win. He has five on the season, one behind co-leading Battery players Nicque Daley and Zeiko Lewis.
That loss didn’t hurt Tampa Bay’s outlook for hosting the first two rounds of the playoffs. A win, however, would have guaranteed home field through the conference portion, the only potential Rowdies' road trip being to Reno 1868 FC in the league final.
As it stands, the Tampa Bay-Charleston winner will either visit Louisville City or host Saint Louis pending the winner of that one, which also kicks off Saturday at 7:30. The West semis pit Reno against Phoenix, and El Paso against New Mexico.
Mkosana and Johnson’s return signal the practically full health of Collins' team, at just the right time.
“We’re in a different spot right now, we’ve got a lot of guys fit, we’re playing at home … it’s a great matchup, a great game for the USL’s point of view, for a neutral’s point of view,” he said.
A team at full force, and a home crowd at full (adjusted) capacity of 1,500, has Tampa Bay appearing ready to put on a show.
“When we look at the games against Charleston, I think we were kind of our own worst enemy,” said forward Zach Steinberger. “We went away from what has made us successful in every other game this season. Obviously we’re going to give them all the respect in the world but we’re really just focused on what we know what we can do. And if we do those things right, we’ll have a good performance.”