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Rowdies expect a defensive battle in conference semifinal

Forget the prolific offense of the opener. Both Birmingham and Tampa Bay can be stingy in allowing goals.
Rowdies defender Conner Antley, here battling for a ball during a regular-season game vs. Pittsburgh, says Tampa Bay will have to stay on its toes against Birmingham in this week's playoff game.
Rowdies defender Conner Antley, here battling for a ball during a regular-season game vs. Pittsburgh, says Tampa Bay will have to stay on its toes against Birmingham in this week's playoff game. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Nov. 13

ST. PETERSBURG — A large percentage of those who attended the Rowdies’ playoff opener will be back at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday for the Eastern Conference semifinals, and why not? Tampa Bay put on an offensive show, scoring six goals before the 6,000-plus in attendance.

Fair warning: don’t expect the same outpouring of goals. The semifinal pits the top defensive teams in the league, with Tampa Bay (24-7-2) taking on Birmingham Legion FC in a kickoff scheduled for 7 p.m. The winner faces the Louisville-Charleston survivor.

“It was just fantastic for the players; they deserved to play in front of a crowd like that, and they put on a performance that reflected the energy in the stadium,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “Looking forward to seeing it again Saturday. We both need each other.”

Birmingham (19-8-6) has not won a match in three weeks, but that comes with extenuating circumstances. Legion FC, which had gone without a defeat in nine straight matches, closed the regular season with a battle for the Central Division title, falling 1-0 to perennial conference champ Louisville. Despite the loss, Birmingham’s 60 points were a club record.

Last week, the scheduled playoff meeting with Pittsburgh was canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests on the Riverhounds’ side.

The Rowdies got past Birmingham 4-2 in the first round last season. Tampa Bay held a 2-0 halftime lead before the Legion stunned the Rowdies with a tying comeback, only to have Lucky Mkosana and Leo Fernandes answer.

Birmingham’s big offensive addition, former Rowdie Junior Flemmings, scored six goals this season but is with the Jamaican national team for World Cup qualifiers. The Legion don’t have many other new faces but two of them, starting defenders Phanuel Kavita and Ryan James, are among the leaders in minutes played. Tampa Bay led the league with just 23 goals allowed in 32 matches, but Birmingham was closest behind with 31 conceded.

“The matches we’ve had against Birmingham have always been tight affairs,” Collins said. “Very well-organized team. Since (last year) they’ve improved. They’ve kept good continuity, but they’ve added at the back end of the field. Top USL roster, and a well-coached team, so we’re going to have to be really creative to break them down.”

Anchoring the defense is Alex Crognale, who led the Legion in all the key stats last season, and by far in clearances this year with 110 (only Kavita, with 87, has more than 50).

To further drive home the point that a lopsided final score is unlikely, Birmingham has only surrendered more than two goals twice, allowing three in defeats to Tulsa and Memphis. After the latter setback, 3-2 on Sept. 4, Birmingham posted a pair of 1-1 draws before winning seven straight.

With Flemmings out, Neco Brett likely will be the man Tampa Bay focuses on. The veteran has 18 goals, just a few behind East-leading Sebastian Guenzatti (21) of the Rowdies. Steevan Dos Santos is red-hot of late and has 10 goals himself.

Whereas Tampa Bay built its attack from the wings against Tulsa, with Fernandes having free roam on the left, Conner Antley — who assisted Guenzatti to get the scoring started — on the right, the approach will likely be altered by Birmingham’s staunchness.

“This is going to be a bit tougher test for us,” said Antley. “Defensively they’re a good team, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to pull them out as much as we were able to (against) Tulsa. They’re gonna sit in a little bit deeper. It’s going to be more about trying to move those players than us moving the ball.”

Even if the Rowdies get some clean looks they’ll have to solve another veteran, goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel (nine shutouts).

Collins, a defender as a player, won’t mind if Saturday’s matchup finds goals a little harder to come by.

“Utmost respect to Birmingham. We have a good variety in our play. We’re not one-dimensional,” he said. “We’d like to think that we can hurt teams in different ways.”