The Rowdies are officially postseason bound, and their primary target — obtaining homefield advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs — is within reach.
After falling behind early on the road, the Rowdies quickly took the lead and held on for a 2-1 win over Charleston on Saturday night.
Tampa Bay (19-6-1, 58 points) hasn’t lost in 11 straight games (one tie). With Pittsburgh falling at Miami on Saturday, the Rowdies have a 10-point cushion atop the Atlantic Division and are first in the Eastern Conference. Central Division leader Birmingham is second in the East but eight points behind Tampa Bay.
The Rowdies needed just a draw Saturday for their earliest clinch of a postseason berth.
“We don’t take it for granted. (It’s) really impressive considering the conference that we’re in, but it’s a small step,” coach Neill Collins said. “I tell you who won’t be celebrating that. It’s the players. Their eyes are on things further down the road. I’m glad I’ve got a group like that.”
Their eyes couldn’t believe what they saw early in the game. A handball was called against Jordan Scarlett — a decision Collins termed “dubious” — as he tried to block an AJ Paterson shot and had no time to react. Replays showed that the ball glanced off Scarlett’s arm.
A penalty kick was awarded, and Claudio Repetto converted for a ninth-minute Charleston lead.
The Rowdies’ Forrest Lasso picked up a yellow card a few minutes later continuing his protest of the call, but the Rowdies were able to gather their composure and a lead before 25 minutes had elapsed.
Laurence Wyke made it 1-1 in the 21st minute, sending a ball to the left of the penalty box for Leo Fernandes, who came up with his fourth assist on a low pass that Wyke directed past Joe Kuzminsky.
Four minutes later the Rowdies got a penalty kick when Steevan Dos Santos was pushed down awaiting a cross. Sebastian Guenzatti, who had missed his previous two penalty kicks this year, scored his 17th goal of the season.
“I thought we looked a little bit emotional for a couple of minutes, understandably so,” Collins said. “But the reaction was fantastic, and I thought it spurred us on to play some of the best football — for that next 30 minutes — that we’ve seen all season.
“Evan (Louro), Forrest, Yann (Ekra), (Guenzatti), they all did a great job using their experience to put everybody back into the game.”
Against a Charleston team desperate for points — it’s fifth in the Atlantic, one place out of a playoff spot but 12 points behind fourth-place Charlotte — the Rowdies made the second half rather uneventful. Wyke nearly extended the lead, but Kuzminsky made a great kick save. The Rowdies rarely pressed forward, but the Battery had very few dangerous moments.
After losing three times to the Battery last year, the Rowdies are 3-0-0 against Charleston this year.
The teams meet again Thursday night at Al Lang Stadium. It will be the Rowdies’ first home contest in a month.