ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies controlled the first half of their playoff opener Saturday night but had only a one-goal lead at halftime to show for it. Still, if there was any concern that underdog Tulsa might hang around, it didn’t last long.
Tampa Bay (24-7-2) scored two quick goals after the break and piled on with three more in the late stages for a resounding 6-2 victory in the USL Championship Eastern Conference quarterfinal before an Al Lang Stadium crowd of 6,262.
The Rowdies will stay home for an Eastern Conference semifinal date with Birmingham next Saturday.
“Very good performance,” coach Neill Collins said. “The ability to play some great football, under pressure, able to be brave, take the ball past people, I thought that was impressive.”
Not long after Tulsa’s Joaquin Rivas got the visitors on the board in the 67th minute, his team was reduced to 10 men when Eric Bird’s hard foul earned him a second yellow card. The Rowdies showed no mercy, posting 10 of their 22 shots the rest of the way. Leo Fernandes scored twice, both on assists from late substitute Lucky Mkosana, who added a goal himself.
On the attack early, the Rowdies’ Sebastian Guenzatti leaped at Tulsa goalkeeper Austin Wormell and nearly redirected the clearing attempt of his shot into the net. Guenzatti had a close-in shot blocked in the 17th minute but did not miss in the 21st, sliding his body into the path of a low Conner Antley cross to make it 1-0. It was Guenzatti’s 22nd goal of the season.
The Rowdies missed on two great chances to add to their lead. Steevan Dos Santos appeared to score in the 27th minute but was called for a push, and in the 35th, Fernandes slotted a nifty pass to Laurence Wyke, who found himself with a free blast from 10 yards out but skied it.
There weren’t many near-misses in the second half, however. After a steal by Yann Ekra, Dos Santos’ cross went off Tulsa’s Kemba Kibato for an own goal exactly one minute in. Guenzatti did clank one off the intersection of the crossbar and the right post two minutes later, but the Rowdies went up 3-0 on Dos Santos’ close-range header in the 56th minute from a Lewis Hilton corner kick.
“I thought both our wingbacks (Antley and Fernandes) were excellent,” Collins said. “And Yann and Laurence really complemented well, as did (Guenzatti) and Steevan.”
Rivas produced the first of two terrific goals for Tulsa to make it 3-1. But the Rowdies began the late frenzy in the 89th minute. Mkosana, less than 10 seconds after entering the game, was sent in free on the right wing and dropped the ball to Fernandes for a tap-in goal and a 4-1 advantage.
There were three more goals in stoppage time: Tulsa’s Dario Suarez banged one in from 25 yards out to make it 4-2. Then Mkosana pounced on a rebound of Sebastian Dalgaard’s shot, and in the closing moments, he chested a ball down for Fernandes to put away.
“Anytime you get six goals, you know you performed well,” Fernandes said. “We knew the field was going to open up, especially when they went down a man. We were going to get chances. We just had to finish them.”
In other playoff action: Birmingham advanced without playing; Pittsburgh had to forfeit over an abundance of positive coronavirus tests. Charlotte defeated Memphis 3-1. The Independence next weekend will head to Louisville City, which eliminated Miami 1-0.