Judging by the scores of their first three meetings, it wouldn’t seem dangerous to predict that the Rowdies and Hartford Athletic will play to a 1-0 result Saturday night.
But judging by their recent performances — and how those previous matches played out — it might be a risky prediction.
“I think it’s been more of a coincidence than anything,” said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. “The games have been far from that.”
The Rowdies could have scored multiple goals in all three meetings. But whatever the score, another three points is the goal for a Tampa Bay squad currently playing better than any in the USL Championship.
Riding an 8-0-1 streak with six straight victories and eight consecutive shutouts (setting a league record), the Rowdies (17-6-1) are well within range of clinching home field throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Only Phoenix, in the West has a better record, by a single point.
Hartford (9-11-3, 30 points) has dropped off the playoff pace in the Atlantic Division. The four squads that look likely to make the postseason out of the Atlantic are the Rowdies (50 points), Pittsburgh (47), Miami FC (42) and Charlotte (40).
A lot has changed since Hartford’s 1-0 victory over the Rowdies on July 13 at Al Lang Stadium, after which the Athletic were tied for third and just four points behind Tampa Bay.
“I think we’ll all remember that one,” Collins said. “Created chance after chance and just couldn’t get the ball in the goal. And then our last performance against them, (an Aug. 13 win), again we did everything but score. I don’t know if it’ll be 1-nil again this weekend. But all the games have been exciting, their fair share of goal-scoring opportunities.”
Even in the first meeting June 26 in Connecticut, Hartford had a penalty kick stopped by Evan Louro and Tampa Bay had two goals taken off the board for what Collins deemed questionable calls.
The Rowdies have since overcome the frustrations of a 1-4 stretch in July. Sebastian Guenzatti, who had seven great chances in the loss to Hartford, has turned things around with back-to-back two-goal games. He was named the league’s Player of the Week for scoring both goals last Saturday at Atlanta United 2.
Naturally, the defense did its part, running its scoreless minutes streak to its current mark of 801.
“Every game we go in thinking that we should not get scored on,” said Aaron Guillen, who along with Forrest Lasso and Jordan Scarlett has started each game the past two seasons. “I think the back three, Evan, starting from the forwards, as well, just defensively we’ve been amazing these past games. Hopefully, we can continue doing it.”
Though they’ve rarely gotten loose against the Rowdies, Hartford does have some serious scoring threats. Juan Carlos Obregon scored his team-leaving seventh goal last weekend in a 2-0 defeat of Real Monarchs, Preston Tabort Etaka (four goals, five assists) has tremendous speed and Danny Barrera (six goals, nine assists) is a gifted playmaker.
But Hartford has surrendered 36 goals, more than twice that of Tampa Bay (15). One final reason not to expect a fourth 1-0 outcome? Hartford has only played one other match with fewer than two goals all season — a 1-0 win over Miami in Week 2.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Saturday at Dillon Stadium. Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-50s.