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Rowdies move to top of USL Championship points standings

Tampa Bay secures at least one home playoff match with a two-goal victory over Charleston.
Rowdies forward Sebastian Guenzatti signals to his teammates that it is time to celebrate moments after the second of his two goals during a 4-2 victory over Charleston Thursday night at Al Lang Stadium.
Rowdies forward Sebastian Guenzatti signals to his teammates that it is time to celebrate moments after the second of his two goals during a 4-2 victory over Charleston Thursday night at Al Lang Stadium. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 8
Updated Oct. 8

ST. PETERSBURG — Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti scored two goals for the fourth time in his past five games, leading Tampa Bay to a ninth straight victory, 4-2 over Charleston before an announced crowd of 3,210 at Al Lang Stadium on Thursday.

Guenzatti has 19 goals for the season, helping the Rowdies to the highest point total, 61, in the USL Championship with five matches remaining in the regular season.

Though homefield advantage throughout the playoffs remains the Rowdies’ target, Thursday’s victory swelled their Atlantic Division lead to 13 points and secured at least one home playoff match.

“That’s the degree of control you really hope for, that you work to try and have, and it’s credit to the players,” said coach Neill Collins. “Charleston made it difficult, but credit to the boys (for) the type of football they played. It was really enjoyable.”

Rowdies keeper Evan Louro makes one of several great saves.
Rowdies keeper Evan Louro makes one of several great saves. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

A year after going 1-3-0 against Charleston, the Rowdies (20-6-1) completed a four-match sweep this season and might have booted the Battery (8-11-7, 31 points) from playoff contention. Charleston is fifth in the Atlantic, one spot out of the final playoff position but 15 points behind fourth-place Charlotte.

Charleston scored on a fluke own goal in the first half but also mounted several quality attacks, eventually drawing within 3-2 during second-half stoppage time. But Steevan Dos Santos, coming off the bench for Juan Tejada, answered not long after to give Tampa Bay its final margin.

“Playing a team four times, to win all four is an incredible achievement,” said Leo Fernandes, who had a goal and an assist.

Fernandes redirected a Conner Antley pass in the 57th minute to give the Rowdies a 3-1 lead. Antley, seeing his first action in a month, collected two assists, including a cross to set up Guenzatti’s 27th-minute header to start the scoring.

Rowdies forward Sebastian Guenzatti, right, celebrates after scoring the first of his two goals.
Rowdies forward Sebastian Guenzatti, right, celebrates after scoring the first of his two goals. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

Seven minutes later, Lewis Hilton — who also kick-started the first goal — fed Fernandes, who slotted Guenzatti for a shot that snuck inside the left post.

“He’s just playing so well,” Collins said of Guenzatti. “Fantastic header. He’s a great captain, great player, and it’s great to work with him.”

Charleston drew within 2-1 in the 36th minute when Jordan Scarlett’s pass back to Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro had too much on it and Louro whiffed on the clearance attempt.

Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso sends a header toward a teammate.
Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso sends a header toward a teammate. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

However, Louro made up for it with several outstanding saves, including one early on Zeiko Lewis’ free kick and two more in the second half, denying Battery leader Claudio Repetto his 10th goal, once on a point-blank header.

In the 55th minute, Louro’s denial of a strong Repetto shot led to a corner kick, with Sebastian Dalgaard making a critical goal-line clearance to keep it 2-1. Fernandes scored moments later.

“Free kick in the first was an excellent save, the header and the other one at the right time,” Collins said of Louro. “There was a lot of really positive things about pretty much everyone’s performance.”

Tampa Bay outshot Charleston 17-14, with 12 shots on target, eight in the second half.

The Rowdies won’t have much time to celebrate, as they head to Pittsburgh for a meeting with the Riverhounds on Sunday at 6 p.m.