Another professional sports championship is here for Tampa Bay’s taking. Saturday night against host and perennial USL finalist Louisville City FC, the Rowdies rode a stunning early goal to a 2-1 victory in the Eastern Conference championship.
The Rowdies broke Louisville’s 13-match unbeaten streak and will host the league final next Sunday, Nov. 1, at 8:30 p.m. against Phoenix Rising. Phoenix defeated El Paso FC on penalty kicks Saturday night.
Incredibly, Louisville had not trailed in a match since July. But less than four minutes into a chilly night at Lane Stadium, the Rowdies took care of that.
Sebastian Guenzatti started the play with a ball into space for Leo Fernandes, who got the start after several matches as a sub. His pass from the left corner of the penalty box entered on a short hop and Zach Steinberger half-volleyed it home for his first goal of the season.
“I really felt that he would get a goal tonight,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “We took our chances. The first goal was always going to be important. We’ve been threatening to do that. Zach’s been threatening for a while.”
Louisville roared back in an effort to quickly draw even but Rowdies defender Jordan Scarlett made a vital clearance, and Antoine Hoppenot’s diving header went narrowly wide.
“Getting the goal early was great in some respects, but then it put us on the back foot because Louisville really tried to take the game by the horns,” Collins said.
The Rowdies were dealt a tough break when Scarlett was injured and subbed out in the 34th minute, forcing Max Lachowecki onto the back line. Scarlett had played every single minute for the Rowdies this season.
Matters settled but the Rowdies held little possession, and goalie Evan Louro had to make a tough stop on red-hot Corben Bone (six goals) in the 39th minute. But with three minutes of stoppage time winding down, Tampa Bay got a valuable second marker, stunning most of the 5,000 fans in attendance.
Sebastian Dalgaard drove in on goal and rifled a low shot. Though stopped by Ben Lundt, he could not control it, and Guenzatti flew in for his 10th goal of the year. Lundt again made contact but the ball barely trickled over the goal line before a Louisville City defender could get to it.
Louisville, however, stormed out of the break and got rewarded when a dangerous cross was bungled by Lachowecki for an own goal. Tampa Bay quickly regained its footing and on several occasions looked capable of putting the match away with a third goal.
“Despite losing the goal, I thought after that we showed more control. We looked a real threat every time we had the ball in their half of the field,” Collins said. “It was never going to be easy coming here. There was never going to be an easy way to win against a team that are renowned for winning. But I thought there were many aspects of our game that were fantastic tonight.”
In the 58th minute, Fernandes sent Aaron Guillen in with a great ball, and Guillen’s cross was just waiting to be touched in for a score but the Rowdies were bound to have to nurse the small margin.
With 30 minutes left Louisville City switched to a three-man back line, and seven minutes later Collins brought on defender Alex Davey in the most pressure-packed of spots to make his Rowdies debut. He did very well in a key moment, pulling up against veteran forward Chris Ownby, who clearly flopped in the penalty box as the used-to-winning hosts became desperate late.
Collins considered inserting Davey earlier but Lachowecki was more match-ready.
“When Alex came to the club (on Sept. 2) he came for that very situation we were in tonight,” Collins said. “I was very up front with him when we signed him: if we don’t have any injuries, you might not even make the bench. What a performance. It was as if the ball was glued to his head there at the end, he was heading everything out.”
And Lachowecki had an amazing, 50-yard run to slide tackle a hard-charging Ownby later.
When the final whistle blew there was a noticeable roar from the hundreds of Rowdies fans who made the trip. And a prolonged show of emotion from Collins and his players, who ran over to the fans for a joint celebration.
Scarlett especially was demonstrative, shedding tears in a hug with his coach and Lachowecki. Collins indicated hope that Scarlett could play in the final.
“It’s emotional because it’s a 24-7 job,” Collins said. “You see the 90 minutes. But it’s everything (else) you put in. The coaching staff, the athletic trainers, the players, they make sacrifices. And trust me you have more downs than ups. So when a moment like that happens, it’s a feeling that you can’t describe.”