Considering they wrapped up a division title Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Rowdies left Highmark Stadium feeling pretty unfulfilled. That’s because their 12-match unbeaten streak, and nine-game winning streak, came to an end with a 2-0 loss to the Riverhounds.
It was the Rowdies’ first defeat since July 31. Their only blemish during an 11-0-1 stretch was a scoreless draw at Pittsburgh on Aug. 18.
Still, the Rowdies (20-7-1, 61 points) secured the Atlantic Division title when Miami was upset by Loudoun 3-2 earlier Sunday, leaving Miami and Pittsburgh mathematically unable to catch them.
“You’ve got to give the boys a huge amount of credit to clinch the Atlantic, a very, very tough division,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins.
With its victory, Pittsburgh (15-8-6, 51 points) clinched a spot in the playoffs.
The defeat knocked Tampa Bay out of the No. 1 overall spot in the USL Championship. It trails Phoenix by one point.
The Rowdies thought they had taken the lead in the 25th minute on a header by ex-Riverhound Steevan Dos Santos.
Lewis Hilton served a free kick to Forrest Lasso, whose headed pass was knocked toward the goal by Dos Santos. His shot banged off the crossbar and down. Replays showed the ball likely crossed the line, and Rowdies players reacted accordingly, but it was not ruled a goal on the field. There is no review system in the USL.
Pittsburgh’s Tommy Williamson scored in the 42nd minute as Rowdies defender Jordan Scarlett whiffed on a clearance attempt, leaving the ball for the rookie to knock past goalkeeper Evan Louro for his sixth goal of the season.
Tampa Bay had a great chance to even things just before the hour mark. Hilton sent a long ball up to halftime substitute Dayonn Harris. He broke in and had two teammates unmarked. Dos Santos got the delivery and was fouled by goalkeeper Daniel Vitiello for a penalty. But with normal penalty taker Sebastian Guenzatti out of the starting lineup, Leo Fernandes stepped in and was stopped by Vitiello.
“When we missed the penalty, the place erupted,” Collins said. “The boys have done so well in adversity, but it was maybe a bridge too far.
“We weren’t at our best. I do think if we scored there, we’d have a chance of going on and winning the game.”
The Riverhounds later got a penalty chance when Lasso fouled Alex Dixon in the box. Russell Cicerone converted for his 15th goal of the season, making it 2-0 in the 74th minute.
Guenzatti, on a tear with nine goals in his previous five games, did not factor after entering in the 62nd minute. Also held out of the starting lineup, as the Rowdies were on short rest having played Thursday, were Laurence Wyke and Sebastian Dalgaard.
“These things happen,” Collins said of the loss. “We need to move on quickly. Let’s just focus on winning the next game and getting the top seed in the East.”
Wrapping up the division actually doesn’t mean much for Tampa Bay in the playoff structure. The top two teams in each division host a first-round match, which the Rowdies had already secured. After the first round, division distinctions are scrapped, and the top remaining teams end up hosting the rest of the way.
The Rowdies’ magic number to clinch the top spot in the Eastern Conference is seven points — either earned or lost by Louisville. With three matches remaining against bottom-five squads, Tampa Bay appears to be in good shape. Its next two are at home, starting Friday against New York Red Bulls II, who trail the Rowdies by a full 40 points.