ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies were far from their best Saturday, leading to the end of an overall eight-match win streak. But chances for a carryover effect seem pretty slim.
Tampa Bay returns to Al Lang Stadium Friday night, and it’s almost impossible to foresee the lackluster first-half effort that became the basis of a 1-0 loss at Charlotte.
For starters, the opponent, Loudon FC, has just one victory. Also, the stadium should be at its loudest in quite some time, with fans allowed back at full capacity.
“I’m always excited being at Al Lang, but this one’s a bit special,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins. “Knowing that we’re at full capacity for the first time in coming up on two years. Our players will thrive on the atmosphere that the fans will bring. They’re both really important to each other. We’re all looking forward to it.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Despite the loss at Charlotte, the Rowdies (5-1, 15 points) still have the top point total in the USL Championship. Loudon FC comes in 1-4, sitting in the bottom spot among the eight squads in the Atlantic Division.
Tampa Bay caught a break when Miami FC, which would have jumped into second place just three points behind, blew a two-goal lead Sunday at Rio Grande Valley. As it stands, the Rowdies top the division by five points.
“We were not at our best (against Charlotte),” Collins said. “We didn’t perform, but I don’t think it was (our) mentality. Just a lot of different things we can all do better. A few individual off nights, but collectively as well, we didn’t solve the problems.”
Collins was voted by league media as the USL’s Coach of the Month for May.
“I think Neill has been incredible,” defender Conner Antley said. “Neill knows how to get the best out of his players. Being a player himself, I think he understands the role and kind of what we go through on a day-to-day basis. He demands a lot from us, but he would never ask more than what he would (of) himself.”
Antley, who was voted best defender in USL League One (while playing with Georgia’s Tormenta FC), moved up to the Championship level with Indy Eleven last season. He recalls the recruitment call from Collins.
“I was at my grandmother’s house, actually, and I’m having to really listen hard because it’s my first time hearing his accent,” Antley said. “He goes, ‘I can’t promise you everything, but one thing I can promise you is that I’m going to make you a better player. And I’m going to push you, and I’m going to get the most out of you.’ That’s been, no question, the truth. He pushes everyone.”
Antley has excelled at right wingback for Collins, who employs three central defenders (Jordan Scarlett, Forrest Lasso, Aaron Guillen) with the wingbacks pushing up into the attack. With Tampa Bay playing its second game in five days, Antley and others were held out of the starting lineup at Charlotte. He should return, but the Rowdies ikely will still be without forward threat Steevan Dos Santos due to injury.
At least on paper, Tampa Bay appears quite the better team. However, Loudon FC is the reserve team for DC United of the MLS, which is off and therefore could loan some of its players for the match.
“I suspect we’ll see a lot of the same players they’ve used in the first five games,” Collins said. “And those guys, despite their results, have been really good. We expect to face a real energetic, talented young team.”
Loudon’s only victory came 1-0 at New Mexico, a team that hung around despite playing with 10 men for the final hour. In fact, Loudon was a man up on Miami FC for 75 minutes in its opener but fell 2-1, despite 32 shots. Its last two contests were both one-goal defeats at home, to Pittsburgh and Charleston, despite getting off more shots and controlling possession.
Collins isn’t the only one looking forward to seeing a bigger crowd.
“We haven’t had a full stadium yet, but I’m telling you, our first several home games it sure felt like a home game, at least from what I’ve known,” Antley said. “I’ve spoken to some of the guys that have been here in the past, and they say there’s nothing like a full stadium at Al Lang. So I’m really looking forward to it. And looking forward to getting a win.”