A tightly-contested first half in Leesburg, Va., tilted completely on the very last play, one the Rowdies rode to a 2-0 victory over Loudoun United. The win gave Tampa Bay (12-6-1, 37 points) a four-match unbeaten streak and kept the team atop the Atlantic Division.
Lewis Hilton and Forrest Lasso scored their first goals of the season, with Lasso’s spectacular header off a Hilton free kick providing the crucial two-goal cushion at halftime. Hilton launched a high service in from 45 yards and the 6-foot-5 Lasso leaped over a defender and angled the ball perfectly into the goal’s upper right corner.
Right after the score, the referee blew the first-half whistle.
Shots had been equal (8-8) to that point with Loudoun making numerous threats to tie after Hilton’s 23rd-minute free kick had put Tampa Bay ahead. Sebastian Guenzatti was fouled just outside the penalty box, and from straight on Hilton blasted a low curler by the Loudon wall and inside the left post.
“He’s been unfortunate not to score, but the thing about Lewis, his all-around performances have been so consistent,” said Neill Collins, who was coaching his 100th match for the Rowdies. “I thought when that free kick was awarded, despite how poor we’ve been at those direct free kicks, I actually fancied (his chances). And his set-piece deliveries are the best in the league.”
With the cushion Tampa Bay went on fewer attacks in the second half, and the young Loudoun side kept pushing to the tune of eight more shots. Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro, at his busiest all season, was outstanding and produced a critical diving save of Timmy Mehl’s penalty kick in the 53rd minute.
That came during a rather chippy portion of the proceedings — there were a combined 35 fouls on the night — then right around the 70-minute mark the hosts seemed to run out of steam. Though the win was safely in hand by then, to keep the clean sheet Louro needed one more big moment. Tyler Gabarra’s one-time volley from close range was batted over the crossbar in the 92nd minute.
Louro made six saves as Loudon held a 16-13 shot advantage.
“I thought we came out in the second half, didn’t do some of the basics too well and got caught in a bit of a whirlwind of a start from them,” Collins said. “And I thought Evan’s (penalty) save was a fantastic save, and from that point our confidence came back and we started managing the game a lot better. To be where we are in the league you’re going to need moments like that.”
Sunday wins by Pittsburgh (11-6-4, 37 points) and Miami (10-6-4, 34) forced the Rowdies to answer with a victory to stay atop the Atlantic.
Collins also highlighted the performances of midfielders Jordan Doherty and Sebastian Dalgaard, who continue to get more time with Leo Fernandes and Dayon Harris out and Luiz Fernando yet to make his Rowdies debut. Though both Tampa Bay goals were on set pieces, they certainly had chances with the run of play, including Dalgaard having a 35th-minute blast get parried away on a tough low save by Jermaine Fordah.
Tampa Bay improved to 3-0 this season against Loudoun, which fell to 3-15-1. The Rowdies are back at it Saturday hosting Charlotte at Al Lang Stadium; the sides have already played three times with the home team prevailing each time. Charlotte will enter on a true three-way tie with Charleston and Hartford for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Atlantic, as all three have played exactly 18 matches.