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Playoff positioning still at stake for Rowdies

Tampa Bay, coming off a rare loss in recent weeks, hosts the New York Red Bulls II on Friday.
Even with playoff positioning still at stake, the Rowdies may be tempted to give players like midfielder Lewis Hilton, who rarely leaves the pitch, a game off to rest up for the postseason.
Even with playoff positioning still at stake, the Rowdies may be tempted to give players like midfielder Lewis Hilton, who rarely leaves the pitch, a game off to rest up for the postseason. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 14
Updated Oct. 14

The Rowdies get a chance Friday to demonstrate something they haven’t need to for two and a half months: their ability to bounce back from a loss.

And Tampa Bay has plenty more motivation than merely disposing of any lingering disappointment from a 2-0 Sunday night defeat at Pittsburgh. Two wins in their final four games are all the Rowdies need to ensure the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Thanks to league leader Phoenix getting knocked off by Orange County on Wednesday night, the overall top spot also is well within the Rowdies’ reach again.

The outcome against Pittsburgh, a team battling for second place in the Atlantic Division, ended a 12-match unbeaten streak for Tampa Bay (20-7-1, 61 points). All were victories but for one draw, also at Pittsburgh.

“The response has been good. Don’t see any hangover (from the loss), but the true test will be Friday night,” said coach Neill Collins, whose team hosts New York.

Although Tampa Bay’s turnaround started in August, the resurgence of captain Sebastian Guenzatti needed another month. Stuck on nine goals, he struck for one in the Sept. 3 victory against Oakland and has not stopped since, with nine in a span of five matches alone to get to 19 on the season. Only Colorado Springs’ Hadji Barry has more (25).

“As a forward, you always gotta stay positive,” Guenzatti said. “I knew the goals were going to come. Once you get that first one, the rest start coming. I had to stay calm. And my teammates were doing a very good job. It was just a relief that I could help the team again.”

New York appears to be a good team for Tampa Bay to regain its swagger against. Not only were the Red Bulls the ones Tampa Bay defeated 2-1 to start the unbeaten stretch, the Rowdies also posted a 6-0 showing against them in St. Petersburg.

While the Rowdies pace the entire league in fewest goals allowed with 21, New York (5-17-6) is third from last in the category at 63. Tampa Bay has matches left against each of the bottom three teams in goals conceded; the exception is Wednesday at home against rival Miami FC.

Facing lesser opponents (at least on paper) but with playoff positioning at stake, Collins’ big task right now is managing minutes — perhaps giving a veteran a full game off.

“There’s always give and take, because we’re going to need as many guys ready to come in and impact games. When the team’s played the way it’s played the last few weeks, so well, it’s difficult to make changes,” Collins said. “I pick the best team to win the games, but also a team that’s going to give the guys the best opportunity to perform come playoff time. The good thing is we’ve got options to pick from.”

A player like Lewis Hilton comes to mind, as he has logged the most minutes aside from goalkeeper Evan Louro and defenders Jordan Scarlett, Aaron Guillen and Forrest Lasso. Of that defensive group, only Lasso has not played the maximum.

Hilton has been perhaps the most dependable midfielder, though that’s a tough choice considering his teammates at the position. Recently Collins settled on Leo Fernandes as an attacking mid, after he spent much of the season at left wing. Sebastian Dalgaard was playing so well on the right side that it cost Conner Antley four straight matches, but with the Fernandes move Dalgaard flipped to the left, Antley slotting back in at right wing. Yann Ekra and Laurence Wyke also have been rock solid.

Fernandes is tied with Steevan Dos Santos for second-most goals on the team (six) and is one behind Guenzatti’s team lead in assists (five).