ST. PETERSBURG — On more than one occasion last season, the Rowdies managed to squeak out a victory when not playing their best. All of those extra points came in handy as Tampa Bay nudged out Charleston for a division title, producing two home playoff games and an eventual Eastern Conference championship.
Those types of results aren’t happening in 2021. With divisional opponents more numerous, generally stronger and notably voracious in their efforts to knock off the favorites, the Rowdies have not been able to get away with just an average effort.
“The games that we’ve won, we’ve deserved to win, our performances have been very good,” said head coach Neill Collins. “When we’re not at our best, how do we find a way to win? It’s something we need to definitely get better at. Sometimes you gotta try and win the games you don’t quite deserve to. That’s a skill in itself.”
The last time an evenly played game went Tampa Bay’s way? That would be back on June 20 against none other than Friday’s opponent. The Rowdies (9-6, 27 points) will happily take such a result when they face New York Red Bulls II in Montclair, N.J. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Tampa Bay has dropped four of its last five, the only victory coming against Loudoun FC, a team tied for the worst record in the league. The slide has seen the Rowdies fall out of first place In the Atlantic Division, with Pittsburgh (9-4-3, 30 points) the new holder. There’s plenty of soccer left, but only the top two finishers in each division get a home playoff date — and Miami is now tied for second with the Rowdies after its draw Wednesday in Hartford.
Unless Tampa Bay returns to point-gathering mode soon, hosting more than once becomes unlikely. Central Division leader Louisville City sits six points clear of the Rowdies atop the Eastern Conference, and overall No. 1 Phoenix has won four straight to get to 35 points.
“I mean, right now we’re angry,” said midfielder Yann Ekra. “Of course, when we don’t have the result we want, we’re mad. But we’re doing the right things. We always work hard in training, everyone has a good mentality and we know we’re going to turn this thing around and get better. The focus now is to push even more.”
New York has won only three matches all season, but two came against Charlotte, a squad that has shut out Tampa Bay twice, including 2-0 last weekend. In their first meeting this year, also in Montclair, the Rowdies earned a 1-0 victory thanks to a first-half goal by Jordan Adebayo-Smith.
New York outshot the Rowdies, who were playing their first game after a a broken foot suffered by forward Steevan Dos Santos (three goals). His presence has been sorely missed, although Collins indicated that Dos Santos and fellow forward Juan Tejada are making great progress and should return soon.
Tampa Bay put up at least two goals in all four games Dos Santos started and has done it only once in 11 games without him, against a Loudoun team that has conceded more goals (34) than anyone in the USL Championship.
It was also the first road match of the season and put Tampa Bay at 5-0. But the Rowdies are just 4-6 since, and Friday marks the midway point of their season.
“Any team that’s missing the talent that we have at the top end is going to suffer,” Collins said. “You’re missing vital pieces, and that makes it difficult, (especially) when these other teams are so fired up (to beat the Rowdies). We got ourselves up to the top, but as they always say, it’s much harder to stay there.”
The Rowdies have only gone 2-4 away from Al Lang Stadium this season, but Red Bulls II are just 1-5-2 at MSU Soccer Park. Omar Sowe and Jeremy Rafanello lead New York with four goals apiece, while Jake Lacava has three. The trio has combined for more than half of its squad’s shots.
In the same number of matches, New York (3-8-4, 13 points) has scored just two fewer goals than the Rowdies but has given up more than twice as many (33 to 14).
“On the road you just have to have this real stoic, resolute mentality that we’ve probably missed just slightly,” Collins said. “You have to be able to adapt, be flexible in a game and just hang in there at times. I think that’s something that we just need to get back to. That we will get back to. I have no doubt we’ll come through this period stronger for the last half of the season.”