If the Rowdies are to experience a natural letdown this season, this would seem to be the week. Having won a dramatic, and intense, 2-1 decision over defending Western Conference champ Phoenix, in comes a Miami FC squad that Tampa Bay dominated last year.
It’s a possibility that coach Neill Collins acknowledged less than a half hour after last week’s victory — but one that doesn’t concern him.
“Not with this group of players,” Collins said. “This group has a special mentality. The reason they’re here is they know there’s a bigger picture than one win. You still enjoy it, it was a great night for the club. It will be one of the games that will live long in the memory, but Monday morning we’re back at it and try to put on that performance again.”
Tampa Bay is 3-0 and looking very much like the favorite to reach the USL Championship final again. Miami went 0-3-1 against the Rowdies last year but was a young team befitting its status as a first-year franchise. Former FC Tampa Bay coach Paul Dalglish took over at Miami midway through the season, and the squad ended 4-8-4.
While it took that squad 12 games to get its second victory, the current one is already 2-1 and has an influx of exciting talent.
“Huge challenge against a really good, and retooled, Miami team,” Collins said. “We did well last year to pick up the wins against them. Their midfield is really strong, and they’ve added a lot of speed to the top end of the field, so just throughout the spine of the team they’ve strengthened.”
Jamaican Devon “Speedy” Williams, a big part of Louisville City FC’s attack the past four seasons, was the biggest pickup. He scored the lone goal in Miami’s 1-0 victory at New York Red Bulls II on May 14.
Another all-league player with Louisville, defender Paco Craig, is also now in Miami. He scored six minutes into the season as Miami defeated Loudon United 2-1 on May 2. In between, Miami fell 1-0 at home to Hartford, which sits two points behind the Rowdies (3-0) in the Atlantic Division’s No. 2 spot, with Miami third.
Billy Forbes is another dangerous addition, a forward with nearly two dozen goals to his credit the last four years, exclusively with Western Conference teams.
“They’re going to be really motivated to beat us, as I’m sure every team is when you’re sitting at the top end, so it’s going to be a real challenge,” Collins said.
While Forrest Lasso gets the bulk of the accolades for Tampa Bay’s defensive success — rightfully so, as he’s one of the best in the USL — fellow backline members Jordan Scarlett and Aaron Guillen have been just as instrumental in holding the Rowdies’ first three opponents to a total of one goal. Guillen is looking forward to the challenge Miami should present.
“People don’t really know that I have some speed,” Guillen said. “That’s something I like, to match up with players that are fast. I’ve been able to deal with (that) in the past, and hopefully this weekend I can do the same thing and we can keep the clean sheet. That’s the most important thing for us.”
Of course, the Rowdies are no slouches, with Connor Antley — a defender by trait but utilizing his own speed on the right side of the midfield — providing a big boost, as has forward Steevan Dos Santos with his two game-winning goals.
Saturday’s game will mark the end of a month-long homestand to start the season. Ahead is the first of four two-game road trips, but only after a 10-day break. The home-heavy start will be balanced out when Tampa Bay has an additional three-match road swing.