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Rowdies claim league’s top overall spot, gain home-field advantage for playoffs

Tampa Bay wraps up the regular season with a 2-1 victory at Las Vegas.
The Rowdies will have a distinct home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
The Rowdies will have a distinct home-field advantage throughout the postseason. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 31
Updated Nov. 1

After ending the regular season with their longest road trip, the Rowdies no longer will have to be concerned with traveling. Tampa Bay defeated Las Vegas Lights FC 2-1 late Saturday and secured the overall top spot in the USL Championship standings.

Thanks to the result Tampa Bay is assured of not having to leave Al Lang Stadium for the duration of its postseason stay. The Eastern Conference quarterfinals kick off next Saturday as the Rowdies host FC Tulsa at 7:30 p.m.

Although they knew a draw would have been sufficient, the Rowdies gained the final advantage on Steevan Dos Santos’ second goal of the night, and 10th of the season, just past the hour mark. From there the host team rarely threatened Tampa Bay, which subbed in half its field players to easily see out the result.

“This was a big thing for me,” said coach Neill Collins on finishing as the No. 1 seed. “I think it’s important for the club, to be where we want to be, we want to be No. 1. And we know that doesn’t bring us the championship, but it gives us the best possible chance.”

As it turned out the Rowdies would have claimed the top spot regardless, as lone challenger Phoenix settled for a home draw to Tacoma, ending with 67 points. Tampa Bay entered the night with 68.

Tampa Bay (23-7-2) went with its normal lineup, including Sebastian Guenzatti and Dos Santos up top, with Leo Fernandes and Conner Antley as attacking wings, Yann Ekra, Lewis Hilton and Laurence Wyke patrolling the midfeld and the normal back line.

The Rowdies went ahead 12 minutes in as Fernandes sent a ball up toward the penalty area towards Guenzatti. Although the Rowdies’ leading scorer missed the ball, so did Lights goalkeeper Alex Rando, and Dos Santos was able to pounce for an easy score.

Rando — who has the distinction of leading the league in both saves and goals allowed — produced a tremendous stop on Guenzatti’s half-volley flick attempt in the 23rd minute, and shortly after Las Vegas stunned the Rowdies with an equalizing goal. Fielding a pass delivered 10 yards on Vegas’ side of midfield, Daniel Trejo took a volley on the bounce and blasted a goal over Evan Louro.

Former UCF star Cal Jennings, who leads the Lights with 11 goals, made a bid for the lead in the 47th minute but Louro came up with a strong stop. Then it was Jordan Scarlett’s turn to save the day as Jennings put on a sensational turn, drawing out Louro and feeding Trejo only to have Scarlett clear the ball off the goal line.

Not long after that Dos Santos regained Tampa Bay’s advantage. Guenzatti sent Wyke into the penalty box, his pass found Dos Santos, who simply pivoted and drilled a low shot inside the left post.

“Great to see him score, always nice to see your strikers score because it gives the team confidence,” said Collins, who kept his starting strikers on the field until the last set of subs, putting in Lucky Mkosana and Juan Tejada with 10 minutes remaining.

Las Vegas has one of the worst records in the league (6-23-3) but certainly made the Rowdies work. And the environment was one Tampa Bay hadn’t faced: music playing throughout, the public announcer doubling as hype man, and confetti littering the field.

“It’s easy to knock a lot of things that Vegas do, a couple of things that I would maybe not do myself and I’m sure our club wouldn’t do. But at least it was an atmosphere,” Collins said. “We’ve played in games with no atmosphere. I think it suits our team better when there’s electricity. I actually thought it was a tough environment to come into.”

The other Eastern Conference first-round matchups have Charlotte, which finished 12 points behind Tampa Bay in second place in the Atlantic, hosting Memphis 901 FC while Pittsburgh heads to Birmingham and Miami FC travels to Louisville. Pittsburgh blew a chance to be at home when it drew to Hartford 1-1. Louisville leaped over Birmingham for the Central Division title by beating the Legion 1-0.