With 10 minutes to go in their regular season, the Tampa Bay Rowdies were one goal from having the best record in the USL Championship and No. 1 overall seed through the playoffs.
Though that didn’t happen, the Rowdies have fared pretty well, posting a pair of impressive victories to reach the Eastern Conference final.
Yet outside of Tampa Bay, they’re the afterthought when taking on Louisville City FC tonight at Lane Stadium.
“We weren’t going to bother going (up) there, because obviously they’re playing Phoenix next week in the USL Championship finals. Seems as if everyone’s got that one penciled in at Lane Stadium,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins, naturally with a bit of sarcasm behind it.
But it’s not too far from the national perspective. Frankly, Louisville City has earned the treatment.
And not just for its first-round dispatching of the Rowdies in last season’s first round. That took place as Louisville was headed for a third straight spot in the USL final, which they lost. Louisville, however, was the league champion each of the previous two seasons.
They have been to the conference final without fail through their six-year existence. So it’s understandable that most view the Rowdies as a mere impediment as Louisville tries to retake the throne.
“Yeah, it’s a challenge,” Collins says. “Going on the road against any team in the league’s a challenge whether they’ve been in six Eastern Conference finals or not. The most important people that believe in what we’re going to do, is the guys that are going to go on the field, and the guys that are supporting 'em. And that’s all we need.”
That, and for the defense to pass what could be its stiffest test of the year. Louisville features a dynamic forward trio led by Cameron Lancaster and his 12 goals. Former Rowdie Antoine Hoppenot leads the team in seven assists with Brian Ownby right behind him (five).
Louisville was second in the East with 32 goals, exactly two per contest, and they’ve hit right on that number in a pair of playoff shutouts — including against Pittsburgh, the team that topped the East with 39 goals.
“We know we’re dealing with three good players,” Collins said, but stressing that his three-man back line of Forrest Lasso, Aaron Guillen and Jordan Scarlett will be charged “just to do what they’ve done. When you come to (these) important games, I think people think you start pulling all these rabbits out of hats and do things you’ve not done. We believe in what we do. We respect the opposition, scout them and make adjustments accordingly. But we expect (our) three guys to match up.”
Hoppenot, after having no goals (or assists) with the Rowdies, was traded for Lucky Mkosana. Both sides came away happy with that one, Mkosana scoring 10 goals for the Rowdies, including both game-winners this postseason.
Last year the Rowdies limped onto Louisville Slugger Field and lost 1-0. But the roster is healthier in every way this time. Even the venue is different. Louisville no longer shares a baseball facility, instead boasting the soccer-specific, 11,700-seat Lynn Family Stadium.
“We weren’t in the greatest form going into that game. This year it’s a lot different,” said veteran midfielder Leo Fernandes. “With the group of guys we have now, the togetherness, the way that we play for each other… it’s just a lot different.”
And something else has changed since the Rowdies vanquished Group rival Charleston in last week’s conference semis. Phoenix Rising, hosting El Paso in the West final late Saturday, has agreed to give up championship match hosting rights should it advance. Trailing 3-1 to San Diego late in the regular season, Phoenix ended up still getting a victory as one of its players uttered a homophobic slur at a San Diego player; San Diego coach Landon Donovan pulled his team off the field in protest.
So that means if the Rowdies win Saturday, they will host the league title game on Nov. 1.
But they aren’t thinking about any of that now, considering they’ll first have to defeat a side that hasn’t lost since July. Louisville has a dozen victories and two draws since a 1-3 start.
Using a very British phrase which essentially means “gum up the works”, Collins thinks the Rowdies are ready to do just that, even if it means ruining a few predictions.
“You know what, we quite like our team. We quite like what we’re about, and how we’ve played. So why not give it our best shot,” he said. “So, yeah, we’re going to go there and hopefully put the cat amongst the pigeons.”