ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies hope to have more matches at Al Lang Stadium come November, but until then, the way they concluded the home portion of their regular-season schedule will do for now.
Sebastian Guenzatti scored twice, eclipsing his franchise record for a single season with 21 goals, and Tampa Bay locked up the top seed in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference, defeating Miami 3-0 before an announced crowd of 3,976.
Guenzatti, who converted in the third minute and provided insurance with a header in the 71st, had a chance at another header for a hat trick. But instead, the captain nodded the ball back to Steevan Dos Santos, who walloped a left-footed volley to provide the final margin.
“Total team performance. The team played very well collectively,” said coach Neill Collins. “Gotta be happy with so many aspects of the game. On the ball, started the game very good. Against the ball, we were very good. Good goals. Pleased for the players that they got what they deserved for their performance tonight.”
Tampa Bay (21-7-2, 65 points) took the lead barely two minutes into the game. Leo Fernandes, who started up top alongside Guenzatti and Juan Tejada, pushed Miami’s Richard Ballard off the ball, clearing a path to the left side of the penalty area. Fernandez slotted a pass to Guenzatti for a one-timer, his 20th goal breaking his own single-season club mark.
Miami started to control the ball more as the half went on and nearly scored in stoppage time, but Ariel Martinez misfired from close range. In the second half Miami had two free kicks from just outside 20 yards but wasted both, one blasting Rowdies defenseman Conner Antley in the face.
Tejada ripped a shot that Miami goalie Connor Sparrow dove to save in the 63rd minute, keeping the score 1-0. But Rowdies goalkeeper Raiko Arozarena, making his Rowdies debut with Collins resting Evan Louro and other veterans, helped get the second scoring sequence started. His booming kick was fielded by Fernandes 30 yards from the Miami goal. Tejada then pushed the ball over to Antley, who crossed it to Guenzatti for the header and his 21st goal.
The final goal was Dos Santos’ first shot against Miami since he broke his ankle on a nasty challenge by Paco Craig late in a 2-1 victory on May 22. Dos Santos missed two months, including both of Tampa Bay’s losses in Miami.
“To just cushion it down to Steevan, It was a great assist (by Guenzatti) and a great moment. He was really good tonight, and I really like him, Juan and Leo together. What can you say about Seba, he’s having a great season,” Collins said.
Miami (14-9-7, 49 points) possessed the ball for 63 percent of the match, but it rarely resulted in dangerous opportunities, with Tampa Bay holding a 14-5 shot advantage. Only one Miami shot came from inside the penalty box, and none required a save from Arozarena.
“They guys In front of him gave him a pretty comfortable debut,” Collins said.
Forrest Lasso took care of several would-be saves with headed clearances, and Antley, getting the start in the back for Jordan Scarlett, used his speed to thwart a talented Miami frontline. Scarlett entered in the second half, but Antley stayed on as right wingback and picked up his fourth assist.
Collins also was able to give midfielder Lewis Hilton, who had started all but one game, the night off. Fernandes and Dayonn Harris, who had a nice start at right wing, split Hilton’s free-kick duties. Jordan Doherty and Max Lachowecki also performed well in their 10th and fourth starts, respectively.
“All the guys that played tonight did an amazing job,” Guenzatti said. “The hard work from the team — if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had any goals. It feels pretty good to help out the team.”
The Rowdies will host all three rounds of the conference playoffs, should they advance that far, and can still lock up possible homefield for the USL Championship final if they win their last two road matches. They are tied with West leader Phoenix, and both have two matches left, with the Rowdies holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Rowdies’ playoff opener is Nov. 6, when they host the Central Division’s fourth-place finisher, likely Memphis or Tulsa.