ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies battled every step of the way to last season’s USL Championship final, beating three-time defending finalist Louisville City on the road to claim the Eastern Conference crown.
But it was all for naught. A prohibitive amount of positive COVID-19 tests among the Rowdies, including head coach Neill Collins, caused the title match against Phoenix Rising to be canceled one day before the game.
Knowing it had to make that same effort all over again this season, Tampa Bay has so far exceeded it.
After edging Charleston by percentage points for the 2020 division title, the Rowdies sewed up this season’s Atlantic Division crown with five matches remaining. From there, they tucked away the top record in the league, assuring that they will have homefield advantage for the playoffs, starting with Saturday’s game against FC Tulsa.
“I think last year our team performed well in difficult circumstances, but heading into the playoffs on a defeat we missed out on holding the best record in the East, which was a little bit disappointing,” Collins said. “So fast forward to this year, the big thing for me is we’ve just gotten better. They’ve taken on the groundwork that they put in place, added two or three players … They’re definitely in a better place than they were this time last year.”
It had to have been difficult to resist pushing “fast forward” on this regular season, but the Rowdies (23-7-2) put in the work required to finish atop the league standings. Tampa Bay started 5-0, endured injuries and a July slump where it went 1-4, then closed with a league-record eight straight shutouts as part of an 11-0-1 run.
“I think last year kind of put things into perspective for a lot of us where we saw how difficult it was to get to that championship point,” said Forrest Lasso, leader of the league’s best defense. “Obviously, what happened with COVID, we realized it can get taken away from us any moment.
“It motivated us even more, but it (also) kept us grounded. We knew the championship was in November, but mid-January, July even, we were focused on the day at hand and handling business each weekend.”
The Rowdies have never played FC Tulsa (14-13-5), which moved into the Eastern Conference this season. Tulsa has qualified for its second straight postseason after finishing near the bottom of the West the previous two seasons.
Three Tulsa players have at least nine goals, led by Rodrigo da Costa with 11. Dario Suarez and Marlon have nine each, and El Salvador national team member Joaquin Rivas scored his sixth last week after a months-long slump. USF standout Avionne Flanagan, who was drafted by the MLS’ Cincinnati, was loaned to the squad.
Defensively, Tulsa allowed more than twice the goals Tampa Bay did. Then again, the Rowdies were on another level defensively, their 23 goals allowed eight better than next-best Birmingham.
Rowdies captain Sebastian Guenzatti scored almost that many himself, with 21, including a September in which he scored two goals in three straight matches. Steevan Dos Santos, who scored three before breaking his foot, finished with 10. And after starters Leo Fernandes, Yann Ekra and Laurence Wyke all missed substantial time, along with key sub Dayonn Harris, the Rowdies appear to be at full strength.
After attendance was limited to fewer than 2,000 for the two home playoff matches last season, it appears the Rowdies will play in front of a near-capacity crowd Saturday of around 7,000. The team announced Friday that only a limited number of tickets in the 300 level remain.
Though the Rowdies went 14-2-1 at home this season and Tulsa won just five of 17 road matches, Collins doesn’t expect complacency to be a problem.
“I think our record against the bottom teams was the (league’s) best, and I think that shows they never take anything lightly,” he said. “They didn’t take their foot off the pedal when they wrapped the division up with five games to play, because these guys are all holding each other accountable, to a higher standard. These guys are so dialed in.”