Not long ago, the Rowdies were looking up at a Pittsburgh team that seemed ready to seize control of the Atlantic Division standings, or at least as much as one can midway through the USL Championship season.
Fortunes have reversed quickly. And now it’s the Rowdies who will have that opportunity when they face the Riverhounds Wednesday in Pittsburgh. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Highmark Stadium.
Though the teams are tied atop the division with 33 points, Pittsburgh has played two more matches, so a Rowdies victory would put them in the driver’s seat.
“We expect a top-of-the-table clash,” said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. “It won’t define either of our seasons, but we’d both like to get three points on the board and secure — not secure the top spot, but gain a little bit of an advantage at this point.”
Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were even in points before the Rowdies lost 2-0 at Charlotte on July 31, the same night the Riverhounds were claiming the third of what would be four straight victories. Tampa Bay won its next match, but Pittsburgh took a two-goal lead over Miami FC Wednesday at home.
Then came the stunning sequence that has helped swing matters back in the Rowdies’ favor.
Less than 45 seconds after the ensuing kickoff, Miami took advantage of a rare defensive mistake, a header that sent Miami’s Christiano Francois in for an easy score. Then essentially off the following kick, the match was tied thanks to another defensive misplay. Miami went on to win 3-2 with an 80th-minute penalty kick.
Pittsburgh (10-6-3) lost again three days later, 1-0 at Charlotte.
“I think it just shows you it can happen to anyone. They lost a goal immediately after their second goal, which I think is a cardinal sin, then momentum just shifts,” Collins said. “Then they went to Charlotte and got beat, but it’s two results that can quite easily happen in this league. Miami and Charlotte are both very good teams. We’ll expect the best of Pittsburgh on Wednesday night.”
Those results put Miami (31 points) and Charlotte (26) third and fourth, respectively, in the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay (11-6-0) has rounded into better shape physically with the return of injured strikers Steevan Dos Santos and Juan Tejada, who played in Friday’s 1-0 win over Hartford.
Dos Santos logged 56 minutes in his first action since May 22. Tejada played the final 10 minutes in what was his season debut.
“There’s always something — right now it’s wingbacks, we’re a little bit short with Leo (Fernandes) and Dayonn (Harris) out, but, it’s certainly nice to have the strikers strengthened,” Collins said. “Everyone’s taken some positivity from that. We’re definitely In a better position than we were three or four weeks ago.”
Tejada isn’t quite ready to start, but Tampa Bay suddenly has a plentitude of forwards with Sebastian Guenzatti, Dos Santos, Jordan Adebayo-Smith (last week’s goal-scorer) and Lucky Mkosana also recently back from injury.
Then again, defense may decide this one. Tampa Bay’s Aaron Guillen was named to the league’s Team of the Week for his role in helping to limit Hartford to two shots. Pittsburgh will be looking to get things cranking again after managing just one shot on goal at Charlotte.
Dos Santos, a former Riverhound, scored as Tampa Bay rolled Pittsburgh in this season’s opener, 3-0 at Al Lang Stadium. The Rowdies dominated possession June 19 in St. Petersburg but lost to Pittsburgh 2-1.