ST. PETERSBURG — If the Rowdies pick up where they left off against Hartford Athletic Friday at Al Lang Stadium, fans better not take too long finding their seats for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
During a frantic final eight minutes in their last meeting July 13 in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay had almost as many shots (nine) as Hartford did all night. The Rowdies appeared to have scored on at least a half dozen occasions, many in stoppage time. Still, Hartford managed to escape with a 1-0 win.
Rowdies coach Neill Collins has referred to the defeat as a “one-in-a-million” outcome. If Tampa Bay can come anywhere near matching its closing pace Friday, it will be back in first-place In the Atlantic Division.
Thanks to Pittsburgh getting stunned 3-2 at home by Miami on Wednesday, the Rowdies (10-6, 30 points) can regain the division lead with a victory. Pittsburgh has 33 points but has played two more games.
“I think the players were very focused going into New York (a 2-1, come-from-behind win on Aug. 6), and we picked up a deserved win and the players are looking to build on it,” Collins said. “The mood is good, but determined I think is the best word.”
Max Lachowecki, in a spot start for injured midfielder Leo Fernandes, engineered the win with an assist to Jordan Adebayo-Smith before his own diving header produced the winning goal.
As the victory ended a 1-4 stretch with the lone victory coming against last-place Loudoun, the ribbing Lachowecki received for heading a ball that was inches off the turf was well worth it.
“Funny enough I do that enough in training quite often, so I don’t think anybody on the team was too shocked to see me go with my head on that one,” he said. “I’ve probably headed a few off the ground and over the goalie. I’ve always been a big fan of diving headers, so any opportunity I get, I generally take it.”
Whatever it takes to get the ball in the net will be acceptable against Hartford. The Rowdies did manage to score a goal in a 1-0 victory over the Athletic June 26 in Connecticut. After closing to within four points of Tampa Bay with its victory in mid-July, Hartford (7-5, 24 points) has gone 1-3-1 since.
“They’ve had some really good results and they’ve been in every game,” Collins said. “They’re a threat, they’ve scored goals, so the biggest thing is we are going to have to handle their attack. They go on the front foot and are exciting to watch.”
Danny Barrera is tied for the Eastern Conference lead with seven assists and is one of three Hartford players with four goals. The Athletic have added some attacking pieces on loan, including Derek Dodson, who has three goals in six matches, including the lone goal in the win over the Rowdies.
Meanwhile, the Rowdies are starting to round into physical shape, with midfielders Laurence Wyke and Yann Ekra settling into important roles after missing several games with injuries. Forward Steevan Dos Santos, who started the first four matches before being hurt, could make his return Friday, and Collins hinted that Juan Tejada’s season debut could be near.
While the thinned-out roster no doubt had something to do with the Rowdies’ dip in performance — a 5-6 stretch after a 5-0 start — Collins said he thinks it will wind up helping his team’s cause as it begins the second half of the season.
“We’ve got a great group,” he said. “I believe in the next 16 games we’ll be better for the defeats we’ve had. I felt it was the defeats last year that stood us in good stead for the playoffs. Hopefully, we don’t have any more learning to do.”