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Rowdies shut out Birmingham, advance to conference final

Yann Ekra has the lone score, but Tampa Bay limits the Legion to just two shots on goal.
Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso signals No. 1 during the celebration after Yann Ekra scores the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Birmingham Legion FC Saturday night. 


midfielder Yann Ekra, right, begins the celebration with teammates moments after Ekra scored the only goal in the 57th minute of a conference semifinal Saturday night against Birmingham Legion FC. Scott Purks, Special to the Times
Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso signals No. 1 during the celebration after Yann Ekra scores the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Birmingham Legion FC Saturday night. midfielder Yann Ekra, right, begins the celebration with teammates moments after Ekra scored the only goal in the 57th minute of a conference semifinal Saturday night against Birmingham Legion FC. Scott Purks, Special to the Times [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Nov. 14
Updated Nov. 14

ST. PETERSBURG — In about as convincing of a 1-0 win as a soccer team can turn in, the Rowdies dispatched Birmingham on Saturday night to land a spot in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference final before 5,949 at Al Lang Stadium.

The Legion had nary a good look at the goal but hung around, keeping the game scoreless through one half of play. Tampa Bay (25-7-2) burst through in the 57th minute when Yann Ekra, the sturdy midfielder who scored only two goals in the regular season, collected a cross from Conner Antley and belted in a low shot that froze goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel.

“I think it was a really great team performance,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins. “It wasn’t as free-flowing as some of the games we’ve seen, but in terms of control, credit to the players for showing such discipline. So many good individual performances. Everyone was doing their role.”

After Ekra’s tally, Birmingham managed one semidangerous chance: Alex Crognale’s header off a corner kick that was easily claimed by goalie Evan Louro in the 73rd minute. That was one of just two shots on goal for Birmingham. Tampa Bay posted a 10-6 shot advantage overall.

In the conference final next Saturday at Al Lang Stadium, the Rowdies square off with Louisville, which converted an 89th-minute penalty kick to defeat Charlotte in the other semifinal. Louisville will be looking for revenge from last season, when the Rowdies won the conference title in Kentucky, the place that saw Louisville host three straight finals, winning two.

Rowdies midfielder Yann Ekra chases down a ball early in the second half of the conference semifinal.
Rowdies midfielder Yann Ekra chases down a ball early in the second half of the conference semifinal. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

“Fantastic for the league,” Collins said. “Tampa Bay Rowdies, Louisville, Eastern Conference final is a great advert for the league. We’re happy to be at this stage and happy to have it at our stadium.”

The crowd was roaring from the start, especially on Rowdies offensive surges, as infrequent as they were. Tampa Bay was without second-leading scorer Steevan Dos Santos, with Juan Tejada getting the start in his forward spot. Tejada nearly tacked on a second goal late.

Collins indicated that Dos Santos should be ready to return next weekend.

The Rowdies held a 5-4 shot advantage at halftime, the best chances for Tampa Bay coming from Ekra, including a header in the 37th minute. But 20 minutes later, after strong work by Sebastian Guenzatti and Laurence Wyke to get the ball across midfield, Ekra sprung Antley on the right wing. The cross was perfect, putting the right wingback in a tie for the team lead with six assists this season.

Ekra, whom Collins challenged to give an extra 10 percent in the second half, gathered the ball and one-timed it home.

“That was 10 percent, so I’m happy with that,” Ekra said. “I knew I was in the box, and in the box you have to react quick, and I shot right away without any hesitation.”

Collins did not make a substitution until the 75th minute. Forrest Lasso led an intense defensive effort that rarely permitted Birmingham into the penalty box and quickly thwarted most efforts near that area. Birmingham resorted to pulling its goalkeeper on a late free kick, but the kick drifted well out of play.

Tampa Bay held the Legion’s Neco Brett, who had 18 goals in the regular season, to one shot.

“This group, that’s one thing I never worry about, their intensity,” Collins said. “Everyone played their role (Saturday), and we ended up with a 1-nil win that was well deserved against a really tough side.”