ST. PETERSBURG — It’s not as glitzy as their 5-0 start, when the Rowdies scored 11 goals. But their current four-match unbeaten streak has in many ways been just as impressive.
The Rowdies have pulled results in three straight road matches, including a 2-0 victory over Loudoun United on Monday, to return to the top of the Atlantic Division after a 1-4 slide. Now, Tampa Bay gets to enjoy its first consecutive home games since mid-June, starting Saturday night against Charlotte at Al Lang Stadium.
“We’ve just really come together in these games,” said Rowdies midfielder Jordan Doherty, who played 85 minutes Monday. “Away games are really important to pick up points and the places we go and play are tough, so you really need that camaraderie and togetherness to get through it. I think we’ve got that.”
They’ve done it by finishing matches well, with a 2-1 win at New York Red Bulls II, a scoreless draw at Atlantic co-leader Pittsburgh and holding down a Loudoun team that had scored four in its previous match. Goalkeeper Evan Louro was masterful — even saving a penalty kick — and stalwart defender Forrest Lasso got in on the scoring with a headed goal to end the first half.
Prior to the run, Tampa Bay had won just one of five matches on the road, with Charlotte responsible for two of the defeats. That kickstarted the Independence’s own five-match unbeaten streak, including a wild 3-3 home draw with Colorado Springs last weekend in which the visitors tied the score in the 84th minute.
Saturday will be the last of four regular-season meetings between the teams, with the Rowdies dropping two of the first three.
“Playing a team for the fourth time becomes difficult,” said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. “Definitely becomes a little more tactical, and you’re wondering what you can do differently without changing everything.”
One thing they’ll try is to create space between Charlotte’s defenders. The Independence have employed a five-man back in the two shutouts of Tampa Bay.
“It’s going to take good quality passes through a line of five; that’ll be a big focus,” Collins said. “Getting the ball to our wingbacks, definitely going to have to draw those three center backs out of position.”
Three Charlotte players have at least five goals, led by Dane Kelly with seven (Irvin Parra six, Marcelo Palomino five).
Tampa Bay (12-6-1, 37 points) will have a dozen matches left after this one. Pittsburgh (11-6-4) also will be in action Saturday at Hartford, while third-place Miami (34 points) hosts New York on Sunday. Though they’ve been successful away from home, make no mistake — the Rowdies are glad to be back in St. Pete.
“Al Lang is an unbelievable pitch, and unbelievable stadium,” Doherty said. “I think we’re blessed to play there.”
The Brit likely will get more playing time Saturday, as the Rowdies continue to be without midfielders Leo Fernandes and Dayonn Harris. Collins revealed that Harris, who recently hurt his hamstring, has since gotten sick.
“He’s been so unfortunate. He’s been ill. Not anything COVID-related, just normal illness. They still exist,” Collins said. “Those two guys will be massive boosts to the squad” when they return.
Charlotte has plenty to play for, as it enters the match tied with Charleston and Hartford for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Atlantic. All three are an identical 8-7-3 with 27 points.