ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies opened the season with a five-match winning streak and can equal that mark Saturday night, when they welcome New York Red Bulls II for a 7:30 kickoff at Al Lang Stadium.
Tampa Bay (15-6-1, 46 points) has claimed the top spot in the USL Championship, most recently earning a 1-0 win Tuesday at Charleston. While their road play has improved and will need to continue to do so (their next three games are away), home is where the Rowdies have thrived with a 10-2 mark.
The teams have met twice, both in Montclair, N.J., with the Rowdies pulling off one-goal victories each time. A 2-1 win on Aug. 6 marked the last time Tampa Bay allowed a goal and started the team’s current 6-0-1 stretch.
“Us playing at home always gives us a confidence in what we can do,” said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. “The collective communication, but also the collective performances (on defense), have been at a high level. We feel as if we’re in a good spot, but we never take it for granted.”
Not surprisingly, the Rowdies lead the USL Championship in fewest goals allowed at just 15. El Paso has given up 16, with the dropoff to third-best Phoenix (20) a large one.
Tampa Bay won’t have the services of right wing Conner Antley, who received a red card late against Charleston. Fortunately, Dayonn Harris is cleared for action after missing the past seven weeks with a hamstring injury, followed by illness. Sebastian Dalgaard also could fill in on the right side if needed.
Tampa Bay is as healthy as it’s been all season, not bad timing with the regular season more than two-thirds complete and playoff positioning starting to come into focus. Juan Tejada, out the first 3½ months, earned his first start at forward Tuesday, allowing Collins to give captain Sebastian Guenzatti a relative night off as a sub.
“Now I feel I’m good — after long months,” Tejada said. “It’s still in progress, of course. I need to start building up (in terms of) playing time and stuff, but it’s great to be back.”
Leo Fernandes, himself out more than a month until recently, also started at Charleston and was moved from left wing into a more attacking midfield role.
Tampa Bay has more healthy players, and options, than ever.
“What we’ve got right now is good dilemmas, not just because we’ve got people available, but we’ve got people putting in performances,” Collins said. “Right now you look at the likes of Seb Dalgaard, who’s been fantastic on the wing, Leo who comes back straightaway shows me in certain games he can do that role, Juan’s first start, really positive performance. It’s definitely exciting.”
Guenzatti almost certainly will slot back into the starting lineup Saturday, and fellow forward Steevan Dos Santos’ return to full health has been a major boost to the Rowdies’ attack.
Every team near Tampa Bay in the overall league standings is in action this weekend. Pittsburgh, second in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference with 44 points, hosts last-place Loudoun, so the Rowdies will almost certainly have to win to stay on top.
New York (4-13-4) defeated Hartford 2-0 last Saturday but had lost seven straight prior to that. As a feeder team to the MLS side, Red Bulls II sports a prominently youthful roster, something Collins thinks might lessen the Rowdies’ homefield advantage.
“Some teams come to Al Lang and are fearful and change (their tactics), whereas the younger players, they’re going to go for it,” he said. “So we need to be mindful of that.”