ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies look to shake their string of rematch misfortune tonight, when Hartford FC visits Al Lang Stadium for a rare early-week home tilt.
Tampa Bay has hit the one-third mark of its 2021 schedule and though the winning pace has slowed some since a 5-0 start, its overall 8-3 record (24 points) still stands above the heap in the USL Championship.
Injuries have struck during the current 3-3 stretch and the roster has been especially reduced over the past three matches, beginning when both Yann Ekra and Laurence Wyke were hurt right before the first meeting against Hartford.
Though the Rowdies took that June 26 road contest 1-0, they will happily welcome Wyke back to the fold, which coach Neill Collins indicated is likely.
“We’ve asked a lot of the players recently, a lot of the same players have been out there giving their all, and we’re not going to be too hard on them, just get them refreshed and ready to go,” Collins said. “Laurence came back to training the other today, and his impact was seen immediately. Has been a real integral part, had a great start to the season.”
Wyke, a 24-year-old Englishman who matriculated through the Manchester United academy before scoring 16 goals for Furman University, played in seven matches for the MLS’ Atlanta United last season. The midfielder played the full 90 minutes in three of his five starts for the Rowdies before injuring his hip.
Collins also indicated forwards Juan Tejada, Lucky Mkosana and midfielder Luiz Fernando should see their first action of the season “sooner rather than later.”
A 2-1 loss at Miami FC last Wednesday made the Rowdies 0-for-3 in rematches, all coming against teams they had defeated the first time around. Miami (6-5-2, 20 points) jumped into third place in the Atlantic Division, and those teams play again in Dade County on Saturday.
Hartford (5-2-2, 17 points), meanwhile, has managed its way above the playoff cutline (top four in the division) despite playing just nine matches.
“I personally think that our division’s probably got the strongest opposition,” Collins said. “Charlotte, Miami, Pittsburgh (second place with 21 points), Charleston, Hartford, those teams can beat anyone across the league, which means every game is difficult. When you’re playing teams four times (each) I think that levels the playing field. Familiarity makes for much tighter games.”
Hartford’s last outing is a perfect example. Against a New York team it had defeated 7-0 previously, Hartford fell behind 2-0 in less than 20 minutes and the score stayed that way until Athletic struck in the 86th minute, then managed a draw thanks to Thomas Janjigian’s free kick in stoppage time. Both goals came after New York’s Emir Tombul departed with a second yellow card in the 83rd minute.
The Rowdies hope to take advantage of Hartford being on extremely short rest, as it just played Saturday evening.
In the first meeting, Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti rebounded a Leo Fernandes shot in the 33rd minute for the game’s only goal. Both players have since made their 100th appearances in a Tampa Bay uniform, and while Guenzatti’s came in front of the home crowd — after he scored in another 1-0 win, over Charleston July 2 — Fernandes can finally be feted by Rowdies supporters en masse tonight.
“I was able to reflect more the day after the (Miami) game, and I was extremely proud and honored just to play 100 games for the Rowdies,” said Fernandes, with Guenzatti adding that “getting to a 100th game means we’re doing something right, and to help out the club, it’s a big deal ... for us it’s an honor.”
Hartford has played the last two games without Juan Carlos Obregon Jr., who was called on to compete for Honduras in the Olympics. But the team did receive a big lift with Derek Dodson coming on loan from Orlando City.
vs. Hartford, 7:30, Al Lang Stadium