As frequent and hotly contested as their 2020 meetings were, it’s hard to believe Friday will mark this season’s first get-together between the Rowdies and Charleston Battery.
And even though Charleston won the season series, it will be the team out for revenge. The Rowdies knocked out the Battery in the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 2-1 win in October at Al Lang Stadium.
“We’re prepared for a really tough Charleston side, very similar to last year,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins. “All the games were very tight, so we’ll be ready for a tight affair.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. All four meetings last season were decided by one goal, and all three of the Rowdies’ defeats came courtesy of the Battery, two in the final month of the regular season.
While the Rowdies (7-2, 21 points) have followed up their conference title by leading the entire USL Championship standings, Charleston is off to a so-so start, currently in the bottom half of the Atlantic Division with a 3-2-2 mark.
This will be the seventh home game in Tampa Bay’s first 10. A stretch of four road games in five looms, albeit not for another month.
In addition to the postgame fireworks, there’s another pretty special thing happening Friday, with captain Sebastian Guenzatti set to make his 100th appearance for the Rowdies. Guenzatti has been a rock, scoring seven goals to rank third in the league. His rebound gave the Rowdies a much-needed 1-0 victory at Hartford Saturday, as they had lost two of their three previous outings.
“For me, and I’ve said it before, Seba epitomizes all the character traits I want our club to be associated with,” Collins said. “He’s been a real leader, and he’s been the captain. He’s what you want having represent you on the field, as a fan. That’s the kind of guy you want to get behind, and certainly the kind of guy I want to coach.”
Guenzatti’s scoring touch is instrumental in this injury laden stretch of the season. The Rowdies continue to be without forwards Steevan Dos Santos, Juan Tejada and Lucky Mkosana (who scored the playoff goal against Charleston). Tampa Bay was down to 15 available field players last week, as both Yann Ekra and Laurence Wyke were late injury scratches.
Collins suggested it could be a similar situation Friday. Fortunately, Dayonn Harris, pressed into starting duty, adjusted to playing more of a central position.
Charleston will be without one of its top scoring threats, as Zeiko Lewis (six goals last season, two this) was called up for action by Bermuda in this weekend’s CONCACAF Gold Cup qualifying action. Charleston brings back plenty of experience from last year’s side and has also gotten solid contributions from rookies Joel Bunting and center back Patrick Hogan. Defender Leland Archer earned his first national cap for Trinidad & Tobago, playing a friendly against the United States in January.
Tampa Bay has one of its own away for Gold Cup qualification, with backup goalkeeper Raiko Arozarena up for Cuba.
“When it was announced, everyone was super excited for him” Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro said. “He comes in every day, since he got here, working his butt off. I know what it’s like to be in that kind of position where you’re not necessarily getting the reps in games. Just buzzing for him. He deserves it.”