ST. PETERSBURG — It didn’t quite have the intensity of a league championship match, but it came pretty close. Before an enthralled Saturday night crowd of 2,355 at Al Lang Stadium, the Rowdies defeated the Phoenix Rising FC 2-1 .
The franchises were slated to face off in last year’s USL Championship final, but it was scrapped due to positive COVID-19 tests among the Rowdies. Saturday’s regular-season matchup had some lulls in the first half, but the second act contained all sorts of drama.
“It had a Cup final feel because of the uniqueness of the opponents, and the backstory,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “It was almost played like a Cup final. Those last 20 minutes were played end-to-end, full of passion, energy and emotion. That’s what everyone wants to see. Both fans will be proud of their teams, I’m sure.”
Steevan Dos Santos created an early own goal, then made it 2-0 with a rebound in the 61st minute. That proved essential as the high-scoring Phoenix side got one back on a superb strike from Santi Moar seven minutes later.
In the final moments, a desperate Phoenix squad (2-1) twice took obvious flops inside the penalty box, with sub Prince Saydee earning a yellow card for his efforts and howls from the crowd. Tampa Bay (3-0), meanwhile, had a handful of chances for a final blow on the counterattack. The wildest came when Phoenix goalkeeper Ben Lundt jumped in on offense, leaving the Rising net empty. Tampa Bay’s Jordan Adebayo-Smith ended up at midfield with nobody in front of him before taking a bad touch.
The stadium was pulsating as the battle wound to its conclusion, adding an element the Rowdies haven’t fully been able to enjoy the past year or so.
“It was a lot of emotion and energy put in tonight, from not just the people on the field, but from the supporters in the stands. And that’s what we are all part of this great game for,” Collins said. “There’s no question that everyone missed those live sporting moments, being there, with the fans. So tonight was a great one.”
Phoenix had outshot its first two opponents 36-12, but Tampa Bay produced a 19-11 advantage Saturday. The Rowdies, however, led at halftime despite not having a shot on goal. In the fourth minute, Phoenix’s Aodhan Quinn attempted to clear a Dos Santos cross but ended up rifling the ball into his own net.
Dos Santos created the opportunity with a quick turn 40 yards from goal, and a rush of speed past two defenders. He nearly scored six minutes later after an incredible effort by Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti, who managed to deflect a hard clearing attempt by Lundt right onto the path of Dos Santos but his shot skied over.
Quinn nearly scored for his own team when, in the 17th minute Moar drew out Rowdies keeper Evan Louro and slotted the ball to Quinn, who with a vacated net shot it wide.
Forrest Lasso and Aaron Guillen supplied essential clearances in the half, especially Guillen’s wisely having his hands behind his back in the penalty box, chesting away a threat in the 31st minute. Play stagnated for about 15 minutes but Tampa Bay nearly grabbed a second just before the break, both on Dos Santos headers that missed the target. Tampa Bay outshot Phoenix 9-5 in the opening stanza.
Phoenix came out firing in the second half. The biggest defensive play might have been from midfielder Laurence Wyke, who tackled the ball way when it looked like two-time league MVP Solomon Asante was in alone.
Lundt made a sensational save on Leo Fernandes’ strike an hour in, but on the ensuing corner kick Tampa Bay doubled its lead. Lasso’s rocket header was saved but right to the feet of Dos Santos.
“The last 30 minutes I thought they were fantastic in terms of (not only) managing the game, but looking to add as well,” Collins said. “Great learning moment and I thought the players handled it very well.”
vs. Miami FC, 7:30 Saturday, Al Lang Stadium