The Rowdies set a new USL Championship standard for spotless defense Saturday, posting an eighth straight shutout, 2-0 over Atlanta United 2 at Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
Tampa Bay needed to get through 49 minutes without yielding an Atlanta goal to reach the league record of 760 scoreless minutes. There wasn’t much other drama in the second half; by then Tampa Bay was in control thanks to two first-half goals by Sebastian Guenzatti.
Amidst all the clean sheets the Rowdies have put together an 8-0-1 streak and their divisional lead bulked up more Saturday. With Pittsburgh losing 1-0 on a late goal at Charlotte, the Rowdies (17-6-1, 52 points) are five points ahead of the Riverhounds for top spot in the Atlantic.
“The players continue to impress me every week,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “Every week we come in and try and guard against complacency. These guys have managed that well themselves. It’s been a great run with a lot of great performances.”
Tampa Bay has two matches in hand and Pittsburgh only has six games remaining in the regular season.
Saturday’s pivotal 49th minute actually contained some intrigue. Leo Fernandes nudged Atlanta’s Amadou Macky Diop, who fell to the turf in hopes of drawing a penalty kick. The 50-50 call certainly could have been a record preventer but no foul was given.
Once that hurdle was cleared, Tampa Bay had more of the scoring chances with Guenzatti twice nearly completing the hat trick, headers in the 57th and 62nd minutes barely missing, including the latter off the crossbar. With back-to-back braces he now sits tied for the conference lead with 14 goals.
“It wasn’t really too much of a thought,” Collins said of the scoreless mark being hit. “This week, I’ve never had a sense of the record being something they’ve talked about. Everything was just about us doing what we’ve done all along. ... Of course we enjoy clean sheets and enjoy scoring goals, but we really focus on the things that we do well to get them.”
The Rowdies outshot the hosts 18-11 on a rainy night in Kennesaw, Ga.
Tampa Bay jumped ahead less than two minutes in when Laurence Wyke got into the penalty box and drilled a low pass that goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo couldn’t handle. It went off the left post and Guenzatti was able to sneak in the rebound.
Guenzatti bookended the half with his stoppage-time score on a perfect setup from Lewis Hilton and Steevan Dos Santos.
In between, Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro was forced to make a difficult save by Erik Lopez on the half-hour mark.
Sebastian Dalgaard, who ended up playing the full night, could have been given a straight red card on a studs-up tackle in the first half. He instead received one of three yellows the Rowdies incurred. Tampa Bay was called for 19 fouls.
“I thought we had a couple calls that could have went another way, but I think our players are so focused on what they can affect, it showed in the way they went about their business,” Collins said.
Atlanta’s only threat to make it a game late was snuffed out by Jordan Scarlett and Aaron Guillen, who came together when it looked like Macky Diop had a break-in on goal in the 80th minute.
Atlanta United 2, which had only lost twice at home in 12 matches, hopes to see the Rowdies again in St. Petersburg. The Atlantic winner will face the Central’s fourth-place side in the first round of the playoffs. Saturday’s loss kept Atlanta two points out of that spot. The Rowdies, meanwhile, are also five points up on Central-leading Louisville, meaning home field through at least the conference portion of the playoffs is in their control.