Their recent road success notwithstanding, the Rowdies still want to lock down a long-term postseason stay at Al Lang Stadium.
Leading the Eastern Conference by six points thanks to an eight-game winning streak (the last three on the road), Tampa Bay happily returns home tonight to face Charleston.
With six regular-season matches remaining, the Rowdies likely will need just three more wins to clinch the East. The USL Championship’s top overall seed also is in play, the only competition being West leader Phoenix, which enters the weekend one point up on the Rowdies (58).
The Rowdies (19-6-1) are on a 10-0-1 stretch since the start of August, on the heels of a seemingly distant four losses in a five-match stretch in July.
“While there’s always little things that I want to improve, the biggest thing for us was we got some key guys back at the top end of the field,” said coach Neill Collins, referring to injured forwards Steevan Dos Santos and Juan Tejada, and midfielders Leo Fernandes and Yann Ekra.
Fernandes’ return has greatly benefited captain and longtime Rowdies cohort Sebastian Guenzatti, who has scored seven goals in his last four outings. Guenzatti, goalless in July, now paces the East with 17. But the entire starting unit has been good and has remained unchanged over the past four matches.
The back line of Forrest Lasso, Aaron Guillen and Jordan Scarlett has started every contest, along with goalkeeper Evan Louro. Now they’re joined by Guenzatti and Dos Santos up top, Fernandes on the left wing, Sebastian Dalgaard on the right, and Ekra, Aaron Guillen, Laurence Wyke and playmaker Lewis Hilton filling out the top unit.
The trick for Collins is to not mess with the flow while seeking to keep the rest of the roster in proper tune.
“I need to look at making sure we’ve got as many guys in some sort of rhythm, in some sort of match minutes, without disturbing the guys that are in full form,” he said. “It’s up to me.
“How can I introduce some of the guys that are desperate to help and contribute? There’s definitely guys that are pushing and ready to go. It’s just a matter of when’s the right time.”
Though the Rowdies have allowed goals in back-to-back contests after posting eight consecutive shutouts, their opponents in both cases were desperate for a victory and therefore pressed far forward.
Charleston, which scored early Saturday before Tampa Bay rallied for a 2-1 win in Mount Pleasant, S.C., is even more in need of a victory tonight. Though the Battery are 15 points behind Charlotte for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, they have two matches in hand along with a future meeting with Charlotte, so they are still clinging to playoff hopes.
The Rowdies top the league in fewest goals allowed (17), and though El Paso is close behind with 19, the gap with the second-best team in the East is substantial, Birmingham with 28. Tampa Bay has allowed the fewest shots on target per match, a full three shots fewer than the nearest competitor.
“First of all, it comes down to the character values,” Collins said. “The first one for us is attitude, the attitude to every aspect of the game, on and off the field. The attitude to hard work.
“The second one is intensity. We know what kind of ground needs to be covered. It’s why players are signed here, it’s why players stay here. If they can’t meet (those requirements), they’re probably not on the team.”