ST. PETERSBURG — A flying 5-0 start for the Rowdies concluded a full two months back — and it feels that far removed. Since then, the Rowdies have played below-.500 soccer, a trend they hope to reverse beginning Saturday night when they host Loudoun United FC.
Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 at Al Lang Stadium. Tampa Bay (8-5) has dropped three straight for the first time in Neill Collins’ tenure as head coach.
“It might be the first time as a coach, but definitely not as a player, unfortunately,” said Collins, still able to laugh despite concerns about his team’s recent rough patch.
A pair of one-goal defeats at Miami FC bookended a mystifying 1-0 home loss to Hartford where Tampa Bay vastly outplayed its opponent. After their last victory, July 2 against Charleston, the Rowdies led the Atlantic Division by seven points. Now, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh (24 points) are tied for first, with Miami just a point behind and Hartford sitting in fourth (20) with two games in hand.
Still, Collins isn’t ready for some major shake-up, at least not tactically or technically.
“I think the big thing for me, this team has been so hard to beat. Every team when they come to play the Rowdies, they have to work so hard — and they have been,” Collins said. “Those defeats, there’s been players cramping, dying on the field to try and beat us. We have to have the intensity.”
He singled out Forrest Lasso’s defending, captain Sebastian Guenzatti’s closing down opposing players and the industrious play of Lewis Hilton but said “we need that (intensity) across the board.”
With Guenzatti on the bench for maintenance purposes, the Rowdies were outworked by Miami for the first half hour and fell behind by two goals before falling 2-1. Even in the loss to Hartford, where the Rowdies saw a handful of surefire goals stay out, a lax start to the second half resulted in no shots for the first 17 minutes.
A full week of training at home, something the Rowdies hadn’t yet enjoyed in July, was welcome. As was the involvement of sidelined forwards Juan Tejada and Lucky Mkosana, who have been out all season. Fans have yet to see newly acquired midfielder Luiz Fernando. And Steevan Dos Santos, who scored three goals in the first four matches before breaking his foot on a hard tackle, will be back in early August, according to Collins.
“Still a little bit early in terms of maybe the fans seeing any of the guys,” Collins said. “But they’re all making their way back into training, that’s been a big boost to everyone.”
Jordan Adebayo-Smith scored two goals early in the season but has been stuck on that number. However he’s still just 20 years old and was not expected to handle such a workload. Guenzatti leads the team with eight goals, and Leo Fernandes became the team’s fourth multiple goal-scorer with his strike against Miami.
Lasso, who wore the captain’s armband for the half Guenzatti was out, likened the Rowdies’ recent struggles to a drive down the road on a rainy day.
“You know you’re going straight. You know where the road goes. You’ve just got to clear your mirror a little bit,” he said “I think our vision is focused, it’s in the right area. Is it a little blurry? Of course. ... If we can round those corners off, we’ll get the results we need.”
Loudoun is off to a 2-10 start, though it did grab an early goal in St. Pete before the Rallies rallied for a 2-1 win on June 11. During its three-game losing streak, Loudoun has been blanked twice and outscored 4-1 by Miami.
“The players know what they do well, and we know we haven’t done them enough over the past three games,” Collins said. “But like Forrest said, you don’t lose sight. You don’t become a bad team overnight. You don’t allow the frustration to become feeling sorry for ourselves. (This group has) the belligerence, the resilience to say, ‘We’re going to put it right,’ and I think we’ll see that on Saturday.”