ST. PETERSBURG — Captain Sebastian Guenzatti scored two goals and added an assist — all in the second half — as Tampa Bay enjoyed a banner night defeating the Charlotte Independence 3-0 before 1,780 fans at Al Lang Stadium.
Before the game the USL Championship Eastern Conference banner was unfurled, but it took a while for the Rowdies to showcase that titleholder status. The visitors stayed level for nearly an hour before Tampa Bay broke through.
“You’re so eager, you’re out in front of fans at Al Lang, you spend a lot of nervous energy leading up to that, you can end up sometimes being a little flat,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “But I think once they got their confidence from the goal, it took a little bit of the anxiety away, and then Charlotte had to change their game plan and it certainly helped us. I’m just very pleased that we got the result.”
Tampa Bay slowly took control midway through the first half. Guenzatti had the best opportunity in the 40th minute on a poor clearance attempt — the net was briefly empty but he couldn’t one-time the ball and the match was even at the break.
The returning defensive trio of Jordan Scarlett, Forrest Lasso and Aaron Guillen had timely clearances in the first half. Early in the second, Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro came up with the save of the night. He dove low and to his left on a textbook header from Thomas de Villardi. Several Charlotte players threw their hands up in celebration, only to be stunned when Louro came up with the stop.
The Rowdies got it going after that. Newcomers Laurence Wyke and Steevan Dos Santos did not make the scoresheet but had key contributions on the goals, as did halftime sub Lewis Hilton.
Wyke, the last player signed this preseason, generated a pair of Tampa Bay’s few shots in the first half and drew the penalty for the first goal. Hilton started the sequence by knocking a pass 30 yards forward to the dangerous Dos Santos, and with Charlotte expecting the shot he sent the ball across to Guenzatti. The captain swept the ball over toward a hard-charging Wyke, who was clipped and sent flying by Charlotte’s Clay Dimick.
Guenzatti powered the PK to the left of goalkeeper Brandon Miller in the 58th minute, and eventually it became a rout as Charlotte had to pull numbers forward. Tampa Bay scored its next two in a span of less than two minutes.
In the 77th minute, Hilton delivered one of his patented free kicks. Charlotte attempted to clear but it was headed backward where Lasso took his time, headed the ball across the goal mouth and Guenzatti in turn headed the ball into the vacated right side of the goal.
Then it was his turn to become distributor, getting a nice feed from a streaking Dos Santos and cutting the ball back to sub Leo Fernandes for the 3-0 lead.
“Very pleased with the impact that the new players had. Laurence put in an excellent performance. Steevan showed on the third goal just how important he can be. Pleased with all the new boys that were able to make their debuts tonight. I thought Conner Antley had a very good game as well at right wingback,” Collins said.
Antley created some havoc in the first half with his speed. Wyke played the entire game, while Antley and Dos Santos were not subbed out until five minutes were left — when three other newcomers (Dayonn Harris, Jordan Adebayo-Smith and Matt Srbely) all got in for their first action.
Louro had one more tough stop to make to preserve the blanking, on an 87th-minute break-in by Tresor Mbuyu. The teams ended up with nine shots apiece.
vs. Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m. May 8
Al Lang Stadium Streaming: ESPN+