The quarter mark of the USL Championship season has hit, and the Rowdies have emerged in relatively good shape. Tampa Bay maintained the best record in the league until Wednesday.
But it gets tougher from here. The friendly-confines portion of the Rowdies’ schedule, which had them at Al Lang Stadium for six of their first eight games, is now completed with some stiff road tests lined up, starting Saturday.
Tampa Bay (6-2, 18 points) takes on Hartford, a team that sits in fourth place in the Atlantic Division but trails only the first-place Rowdies in terms of points per match. Hartford (4-1-1, 13 points) has shown a knack for late drama this year.
“They’ve had some really good results; they’ve got some really exciting attacking players. We’re going to be challenged Saturday,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said.
His team has split a pair of 1-0 outcomes on the road, translating to a vast downturn from their efforts at Al Lang, where they score better than two goals per game. And though they were hosting last weekend the Rowdies needed until stoppage time before getting on the board, too late in falling 2-1 to Pittsburgh.
That outcome dropped Tampa Bay down four rungs to No. 6 in the USL Championship’s power rankings. Pittsburgh leaped one spot ahead. And right there at No. 7 is Saturday’s opponent, which plays its games on the artificial turf of Dillon Stadium.
“Sometimes you have to give credit to the opposition. Pittsburgh were really well organized and made it difficult for us to get it into dangerous areas of the pitch,” said midfielder Lewis Hilton. “The longer the game got on, the more we moved the ball, the more chances we got. And we kind of just ran out of time.”
Odds are Tampa Bay has a better start against Hartford — but it’ll also have to be keen at the finish. After two road wins to start the year, Hartford was down 1-0 at home to Pittsburgh, but pulled out a draw in stoppage time. Last weekend it was tied 1-1 with Loudoun, and after a thunderstorm delay in the 88th minute, Nicolas Cardona scored in the 96th minute for the victory.
And in a 7-0 dismantling of New York Red Bulls 2 three weeks ago, the score was actually just 1-0 before Hartford put home two goals in first-half stoppage time. Danny Barrera, a dynamite creator, facilitated both of those and has five assists on the season. He is tied for the Hartford lead in goals with Juan Carlos Obregon Jr. (four each), with Preston Tabort Etaka adding three.
Helped by the New York outburst, Hartford leads the Eastern Conference in goals scored (16) despite playing just six matches. The Rowdies have 14 from eight contests and have not yet completely clicked in the four since forward Steevan Dos Santos (three goals) was injured. IForwards Juan Tejada and Lucky Mkosana also have been out all season, and none will be on the pitch this weekend.
“There’s no question right now that our options are limited,” Collins said. “With Juan, Steevan and Lucky all out at one position is very unusual. But we believe in what we do. We think we’ve got more than enough with what we’ve got.”
Jordan Adebayo-Smith, the youngest Rowdie at 20 years old, has two goals but the last came more than a month ago. Still, Collins praised his ability to create chances with his speed. Dayonn Harris, a second-year player out of UConn, put his talents on full display by sprinting onto the end of a 50-yard Hilton pass, masterfully dribbling the ball along the goal line before setting up Sebastian Guenzatti for the lone Tampa Bay goal last weekend.
“Dayonn’s a really exciting player. You saw his impact,” Hilton. “Gives us bit of energy, electric pace. I didn’t even look, I kind of knew just to put it in space and that Dayonn would be all over it.”
Tampa Bay needs a win to retake the overall top spot after Birmingham (19) topped Miami on Wednesday. And the Atlantic Division is much tighter: Pittsburgh prevailed Friday to pull within one point of the Rowdies, Charlotte sits three back after winning Wednesday, and Hartford is fully intent on closing the gap.
Hartford has also circled this one as sort of a proving ground. The franchise debuted in 2019 and predictably finished near the bottom of the league (though that included a win over visiting Tampa Bay in the finale). Then they tied Louisville for best regular-season mark in the East last year, only to quickly fade out with a first-round home playoff defeat.
Harry Watling, at 31 the youngest coach in the USL, is in his first season managing Hartford.
“Their young coach has come in and really put his imprint on the team,” Collins said. “It’s a big game on people’s calendars. They want to be making a mark against us. But we feel, when we perform our best, we give ourselves a good chance of winning.”
at Hartford Athletic, 7 p.m. Saturday