ST. PETERSBURG — Rematches are set to become the norm for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, with all but four of their 32 scheduled tilts coming against a set of the same seven Atlantic Division opponents.
Their first one didn’t go so well. But unlike the fizzle-out at Charlotte two weeks ago, the Rowdies will have the crowd behind them against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, who visit Al Lang Stadium for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
Tampa Bay (6-1, 18 points) sits atop the USL Championship and holds a six-point cushion in the Atlantic entering the weekend. Pittsburgh (3-3-2, 11 points) is in third place coming off a 1-0 triumph at Indy Eleven on Tuesday. The Rowdies handled the Riverhounds 3-0, also at home, in Week 2.
“Pittsburgh was possibly our best, most all-around performance,” coach Neill Collins said. “Bob (Lilley)’s teams are notoriously well organized, hard to break down. You know it’s always going to be very difficult and you need to be very astute as a player in terms of decision making.”
Lilley has guided Pittsburgh to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, his clubs posting shutouts in exactly half of their matches. This year’s squad had recorded only one clean sheet prior to Tuesday — and Indy parted ways with head coach Martin Rennie shortly after that one.
After an 0-2-1 start, Pittsburgh scored three goals in consecutive matches, road wins against New York and Loudoun. In fact, all of the Riverhounds’ victories have come away from home. Russell Cicerone, who was held down well by Rowdies defender Jordan Scarlett in the first meeting, has come on to score four goals for Pittsburgh.
“It was my first time playing him and I managed to contain him,” Scarlett said. “But we’re going to have to be even more locked on in terms of counterattacks. Those guys are good so you gotta play them real tight.”
The Rowdies, meanwhile, are still without Steevan Dos Santos, who has missed three matches after breaking a bone in his foot late against Miami on May 22. His absence has been felt: the Rowdies scored at least two goals in each of the matches with Dos Santos but are averaging one a contest since. They needed one late to top Loudoun 2-1 last Friday.
“He’s progressing really well. Hopefully shouldn’t be too much longer,” Collins said. “He did score the last time (against Pittsburgh, his former team) but I think you’ve seen, it’s someone else’s opportunity. And (Jordan) Adebayo-Smith has stepped in, scored a great goal in New York. He missed a couple chances last week but was a constant threat.”
Dos Santos’ three goals are second on the team behind Sebastian Guenzatti (five), then it’s Adebayo-Smith, the 20-year-old who missed two point-blank chances in the first half against Loudoun. Scarlett said the Rowdies veterans, especially goalkeeper Evan Louro, rallied around their teammate.
“You might think for a team like us with such high standards, that we get on each other, and it might be negative at times. Not at all,” Scarlett said. “All of us were telling (Adebayo-Smith), ‘You’re going to get the next one.’ Evan came to the locker room and said ‘I don’t care if you miss four more, you’re going to get the fifth one.’ I always come up against him and training, and I’m always telling him, ‘Come on, push me’ and he always improves. There’s no doubt that he will get more. He’s a good player.”
Collins said Scarlett’s goal is to log every minute this season for Tampa Bay. He was headed that way in 2020 until an injury in the first half of the Eastern Conference final against Louisville.
“Jordan’s one of the best in the locker room at setting the tone,” Collins said. “He wants to work on every part of his game, and that’s the problem for us — we have to drag him off the training field. He wants to improve his passing, his heading, his tackling, his communication. And that’s been a huge part of what we want on this club.
“One of a number of players like that, and other players can follow that lead.”