MIAMI — A sluggish start proved too much to overcome for the Rowdies, who dropped their third match in a row, 2-1 to Miami on Saturday night.
The outcome put Tampa Bay (8-5-0, 24 points) in a first-place tie with Pittsburgh in the USL Championship Atlantic Division, with Miami lurking one point behind.
Miami is on a 4-0-1 streak that includes the franchise’s first two defeats of Tampa Bay, both on the artificial turf field at FIU. It earned Saturday’s result by controlling the tempo early, leading to a 2-0 advantage in the game’s first 35 minutes.
“We’re going through a tough moment,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “Things don’t quite go your way, you’ve got a few players that are just a little bit off form, not quite at their best, then that’s what happens. You come to these places and you get beat.”
Tampa Bay had not surrendered two goals in a half all season and only once before Saturday had given up that many in a game. The Rowdies controlled possession in the final hour, but Miami (7-5-2, 23 points) was able to hang on without too many scares.
Veteran Ariel Martinez, a threat throughout adding in some some nifty moves, got a gift of a goal in the 10th minute on a poor pass by the Rowdies’ Conner Antley as Miami’s forwards pressed early. Antley’s pass from the back third overshot Jordan Scarlett, and Martinez pounced on the chance. He dribbled around drawn-out goalkeeper Evan Louro and fired in his third goal of the year past lunging defender Forrest Lasso.
That seemed to wake up the Rowdies, who then put together their first offensive rush and nearly tied it, but Laurence Wyke’s bullet shot clanked squarely off the left post in the 14th minute. Wyke created a good chance for Zach Steinberger six minutes later, and it looked the Rowdies might have caught a break when Miami defender Richard Ballard had to depart with a leg injury in the 28th minute.
However, Miami doubled its advantage in the 34th minute on a long passing sequence that culminated with some decisive work inside the penalty box: Pierre Da Silva surged on the left side and sent over his fourth assist of the season, one-timed by Othello Bah.
The Rowdies’ first-half performance led Collins to make a rare triple substitution at halftime, including the insertion of captain Sebastian Guenzatti, who had been slated for a relatively short night for rest purposes. Sebastian Dalgaard and Yann Ekra also entered, and the change was noticeable. Tampa Bay, down 70-30 in terms of possession at the half-hour mark, basically flipped that number in the second half.
“Sebastian Guenzatti puts in the biggest workload pretty much of anyone on our team,” Collins said. “We’ve got a huge season ahead. I thought this would have been an opportunity to look at something else. We obviously needed Seba on the field.”
Dalgaard’s cross from the right wing was headed well by Guenzatti in the 56th minute, but Connor Sparrow made a tough save. However, Sparrow could not keep out Leo Fernandes’ rocketed left-foot shot in the 65th minute. Dalgaard got the assist.
Though Miami had few offensive chances the rest of the way, Tampa Bay had only a couple of mildly dangerous attempts. The Rowdies outshot Miami 17-7, but only three of those shots ended up on target.
“I’ll certainly take responsibility for that first-half performance,” Collins said. “Not what we expected, certainly not what we wanted, but I’ll take the blame for that.
“We set up in a way that we thought would give us our best opportunity to win the game, but it certainly didn’t work. Definitely disappointing, and definitely need to look at some things.”