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Rowdies seek first season-opening, five-match winning streak

With a victory over New York Red Bulls 2 Wednesday, Tampa Bay would reach that mark for the first time in its modern era.
Leo Fernandes had the Rowdies' lone goal in a 1-0 victory over New York Red Bulls 2 last March.
Leo Fernandes had the Rowdies' lone goal in a 1-0 victory over New York Red Bulls 2 last March. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Jun. 1
Updated Jun. 1

The Rowdies hopped on a plane Tuesday — not exactly a head-turning development until one realizes the last time it happened during a regular season was last March.

The destination was the same, as is the desired result when Tampa Bay visits New York Red Bulls 2 Wednesday (7 p.m., ESPN-Plus). A victory would give the Rowdies the first five-match winning streak to start a season in their modern era.

On March 7, 2020, Tampa Bay opened its season with a 1-0 victory over the Red Bulls in Montclair, N.J. It was the last outing for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the USL Championship regionalized its condensed schedule, leading to only bus trips for Tampa Bay.

“Usually we go away in preseason, and we haven’t had a chance this year, so first time to go on the road with the team, it’s going to be fun,” said midfielder Leo Fernandes. “These trips make the team closer, we get to bond, build chemistry. It’s always a good time.”

Fernandes, born in Brazil but raised in New York, had a good time last year netting the lone goal of the match on a Zach Steinberger assist near the hour mark.

While Tampa Bay has kept its nucleus from that eventual Eastern Conference championship team, the Red Bulls return only three regulars, with one of them (midfielder Kyle Zajec) yet to hit the field due to a foot injury.

New York has struggled defensively, conceding 11 goals in its 1-3-2 start. The Red Bulls have played more matches than anyone in the Atlantic Division yet are fifth among its eight squads and are coming off a 3-0 defeat to previously winless Pittsburgh.

While the Red Bulls were playing Friday, the Rowdies have enjoyed a 10-day break since edging Miami 2-1. Sebastian Guenzatti’s 79th-minute penalty kick, his third conversion of the year (four goals total), was the difference.

Steevan Dos Santos got the Rowdies on the board early with his expert header courtesy of a Lewis Hilton corner kick. However, Dos Santos (right leg) will be out this weekend, as he was taken out by a harsh tackle from Miami’s Paco Craig in the late stages of that match.

Fortunately, Tampa Bay has plenty of depth and should expect to employ heretofore lesser-used threats like Dayonn Harris and Jordan Adabayo-Smith on its road trip. Especially with another match (and flight) looming with the Rowdies playing at Charlotte on Saturday. 

“No question,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “Those first four games were really tough. We played three (2020) playoff teams, and a team that I expect will be in the playoffs in Miami. But I think now, we need to give guys some opportunities, because they’re going to be important.”

Yann Ekra could get his first start after entering in the second half against Miami for his season debut. Rowdies fans shouldn’t expect to see Lucky Mkosana, Juan Tejada or Luiz Fernando just yet, due to injuries.

New York’s depth, by comparison, is slight, and it’s roster young by its nature as a developmental program for the MLS’ Red Bulls. Two-thirds of the 12 players on the roster are 20 and under, with defender Curtis Ofiri just 15.

Mandela Egbo is the Red Bulls’ leading scorer, although he’s a defender, with all three goals off penalty kicks. The top striker has been Jake LaCava, a 20-year-old with two career goals vs. Tampa Bay to his credit.

Despite being idle last weekend, Tampa Bay still holds the top record in the league. Only Phoenix has as many points (12) but has played an additional game and lost to the Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium in May.  Including last year’s playoff matches, the Rowdies have won seven straight, another modern-era mark.