ST. PETERSBURG — It’s been so long since they’ve squared off, it might take a few minutes for the Rowdies and Miami FC to remember they are rivals.
But there’s enough at stake for both teams, and enough to try and make up for from their most recent outings, to safely say intensity will be on the menu at Al Lang Stadium for the Rowdies’ final home match of the regular season.
Miami FC had never beaten the Rowdies until doing it twice in a 10-day span in July, both matches played at FIU. The second defeat was Tampa Bay’s third consecutive and had Miami just a point behind them in the standings.
Since those three straight losses, the Rowdies have played 16 matches — losing just two. Tampa Bay (20-7-2, 62 points) needs just one draw in its final three games to earn the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
Rowdies coach Neill Collins will hope for a better effort than his team produced Friday, tying New York 1-1. Tampa Bay had put up six goals in its previous meeting against the Red Bulls II.
“I’ve had a chance to reflect and watch the game back,” Collins said. “It wasn’t miles different from the previous game, but we were ruthless the last time. This time, we let those chances go and go, and I think anxiety came in. It was anxiety for the last 15 minutes and we became a little bit disjointed.”
Miami (14-8-7, 49 points) secured a playoff spot thanks to its scoreless draw Saturday against Pittsburgh, but is still seeking a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division. The top teams in each division — the Rowdies have already won the division — host first-round matches, and Miami is three points behind both Charleston and Pittsburgh.
After the first round, teams are re-seeded regardless of division, so the Rowdies are close to being assured any conference playoff matchups would be at home. They’d love more crowds like the nearly 7,000 fans who showed up Friday.
But they’ll definitely want different scorelines, and action in general. Though they were eliminated from playoff contention, the Red Bulls II played like a team desperately in need of a result, staying back defensively and engaging in some second-half time wasting.
“Credit Red Bulls but also I think you’ve got to ask questions about the way they played some of that game in terms of some of the play acting. It sounds like sour grapes but … it destroyed the second half completely. What does the referee do if people are constantly going down with cramps? I don’t think that’s entertainment,” Collins said.
All of the delays created six minutes of stoppage time, which stretched to 10 as New York again had players going (and staying) down.
Miami has fresh knowledge on how officials might influence an outcome. In fact the team will have to shake off a perception that it deserved to lose the last match. After a 66th-minute foul on Pittsburgh, Miami attempted a pass back to goalkeeper Connor Sparrow, who stuck out his leg to try and stop the ball, only to whiff and have it roll into his goal.
The officials convened, the Riverhounds fumed, confusion ensued and eventually a baffling decision came: Pittsburgh was given a corner kick. The Professional Referee Organization stated Tuesday the obvious error and pulled the entire officiating group from its next assignment. Rules do actually call for a corner on the rare occasion a team puts a free kick directly into its own goal, but the rule was misapplied as Miami played the ball forward with the actual free kick.
A loss would have put Miami six points behind Pittsburgh with not much hope for a home playoff game.
The Rowdies have become proficient in facing teams that must push forward to get goals.
“That’s something we work on a lot,” Collins said. “If someone’s going to press us, are we going to go over it to Steevan (Dos Santos), are we going to go around it switching the play, or are we going to go through it and try to break lines? I think over the past 10-12 games we’ve shown great variety. Against Miami it’s going to take a variety of all three.”
Miami has a dynamic attack, as it displayed in consecutive 2-1 wins over Tampa Bay. Ten players have scored multiple goals, led by 10 from Christiano Francois.
Sebastian Guenzatti wouldn’t mind scoring in the home finale, as it would give him a franchise-record 20 goals for the season, beating his own mark.