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No title at stake, but plenty of anticipation for Rowdies-Phoenix

The teams were scheduled to play for the USL Championship title in November before the game was canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
Sebastian Guenzatti, center, celebates a goal with teammates Zach Steinberger, right, and Sebastian Dalgaard during the Rowdies' 4-2 victory over Birmingham Legion FC in the 2020 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Sebastian Guenzatti, center, celebates a goal with teammates Zach Steinberger, right, and Sebastian Dalgaard during the Rowdies' 4-2 victory over Birmingham Legion FC in the 2020 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published May 14
Updated May 15

Half a year after they were supposed to decide the USL Championship title, there won’t be nearly as much at stake when the Rowdies and Phoenix Rising FC meet Saturday at Al Lang Stadium.

That’s very much the company line, anyway.

“We’re two games in. You guys understand the narrative, last year’s final, I get all that,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins. “But the players and the coaches, we move on. Ultimately it’s the third game of the season. And while people will maybe put a little bit more emphasis on it, by the fifth or the sixth game we’ll all have moved on.”

While he’s completely accurate, Collins doesn’t deny it’s a captivating matchup. Not only are both teams picked to win their respective conferences and off to 2-0 starts, the game is set for national television (ESPN2, 8 p.m.).

With only four non-division contests to divvy out per team, the USL was going to make sure this one happened. The championship match set to unfold in November at Al Lang was called off after numerous positive COVID-19 cases on the Rowdies’ side.

“To be honest, last year’s In the past. It really is just the third game of the season for us,” said midfielder Zach Steinberger. “The culture in our locker room is just to try and put in as many good performances over the course of the season and to get better every day. That’s something that comes from the top, and everyone buys into it. That’s where our focus will be (this) weekend.”

As much downplaying as Tampa Bay is doing, the league is not. One tier down, USL League One 2020 finalists Greenville and Omaha are playing Sunday, also on national TV. That matchup also was scrapped for COVID-related reasons, and it’s all being dubbed, “Unfinished Business” on social media.

Adding to the fun: more fans. Tickets were made available to more than just season pass holders, so Al Lang is expected to host around 2,300 supporters.

Based on early results, they could be in for an offensive explosion. While Tampa Bay has a pair of 3-0 victories, Phoenix has scored a league-high seven goals in two games. Two-time MVP Solomon Asante converted twice last week, giving him 44 goals with Phoenix since the Ghanaian joined the franchise in 2018..

“We respect how good they are, (and) we’ll have to have our defenders on top of their game. But equally, we look at our team, and how are they going to defend that? They have to cope with our strengths,” said Collins, singling out Leo Fernandes, who was dazzling last week in his season debut.

Sebastian Guenzatti paces Tampa Bay with three goals. Steevan Dos Santos earned USL Team of the Week inclusion for his early goal against Pittsburgh last week and praise from Phoenix coach Rick Schantz, who is also trying to diffuse the hype over this one.

“It’s the third game of the year. It’s not the championship game,” Schantz said, before adding it is “fantastic” that the league has set up the meeting. “I’m sure everybody wants to watch the two teams play.”

Tampa Bay still hasn’t put key performers Juan Tejada and Yann Ekra on the field yet, nor has winger Luiz Fernando gotten in the lineup. But the Rowdies have looked like a full-strength side, controlling play in both victories and only allowing one shot on goal last week.

Goalkeeping could be an interesting, and deciding, factor. Evan Louro has been steady for Tampa Bay while Phoenix is on its third option, albeit a good one. With returning starter Zac Lubin recovering from back surgery, Andre Rawlsdeparted late In the opener with a groin injury. Ben Lundt, last year’s Louisville City FC netminder and USL leader in shutouts, signed last Thursday and promptly put up a clean sheet.

Saturday also marks the return of former Rowdie defender Darnell King, who played alongside Collins in Tampa Bay.

“It just probably just makes me feel old,” Collins said. “Darnell’s had a fantastic career. It’ll be good to see him on Saturday. As long as he doesn’t play too well.”