ST. PETERSBURG — There can’t be many followers of the USL Championship surprised that the Rowdies and Louisville City FC will play for the Eastern Conference title. Louisville has made it to the conference final in all seven years of its existence, losing to Tampa Bay last season..
The Rowdies were set to host Phoenix in the league final, but multiple positive COVID-19 tests on Tampa Bay’s side led to the cancellation of the match.
“From day one we all discussed the fact that there was going to be a lot of talk about last year’s final being canceled, and we want to put it right,” Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said. “But the reminder was what it took us to get there the last time.”
That reminder came from Sawyer Zent, the team’s video production manager, who put together a video for the team showing how much work it took to get to where it did a year ago.
“The only way we were going to get back there was going to be by doing it again,” Collins said. “The players answered those questions.”
The Rowdies earned homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with a 23-7-2 record this season, good for 71 points. Louisville City was next-best in the East with 61. Tampa Bay is 16-2-1 at home, including two playoff victories.
The winner of Saturday’s game at Al Lang Stadium will host the league championship match Nov. 28 against San Antonio FC or Orange County SC.
Louisville City (20-7-7) led the East in goals during the regular season with 61, while the Rowdies were the best defensive side, allowing just 23 in 32 matches. Louisville has improved on defense, as well, and will take a season-high string of three consecutive shutouts into the game.
With that in mind, the first goal could be big. It certainly was in last year’s conference final, when Tampa Bay’s Zach Steinberger stunned the Louisville City crowd with a third-minute score; Louisville had not trailed in a match in almost three months. Sebastian Guenzatti scored late in the half to make it 2-0, and the Rowdies held for a 2-1 win.
“Every time we get that first goal, we haven’t lost at home,” Guenzatti said. “I think it’s going to come down to the little details. Could come down to a set piece, a missed goal, a breakaway. I think the little details are definitely going to matter in this game.”
Guenzatti has 22 goals this season, edging Louisville’s Cameron Lancaster as top scorer in the East, so it’s pretty clear who both defenses will be keying on.
The Rowdies beat Birmingham 1-0 in last week’s East semifinal despite being without second-leading scorer Steevan Dos Santos, who could be out again. Yann Ekra scored the winning goal, and wings Leo Fernandes and Conner Antley have been constant creators in Tampa Bay’s attack. Lewis Hilton is always a threat with the ball in the middle of the field.
On defense, Tampa Bay goalkeeper Evan Louro, along with the backline trio of Aaron Guillen, Forrest Lasso and Jordan Scarlett, have been great all season.
In addition to Lancaster, Louisville City has a nine-goal scorer in captain Paolo Delpiccolo. Louisville’s defense, led by fifth-year player Sean Totsch, includes former USF standout Wes Charpie. Midfielder Brian Ownby, also in his fifth year, had a career-high 11 assists this season.
“They’re a very fluid team, very expansive,” Collins said. “They have players that pick up positions all over the field, so they’re quite unorthodox at times. So it’s just our ability to not get moved around too much. Lancaster, Ownby, excellent players, but it’s the fluidity as a whole that we’ll have to deal with.”
Louisville City won the league crown in 2017 and ‘18, then lost in the final in 2019 before its run of title-match appearances was halted by Tampa Bay last season.
The Rowdies are expecting a crowd around 7,000 for the game, including several hundred from Louisville, as the club offered free airfare and bus rides.
“I hope we get a packed stadium — loud and hard to play against,” Guenzatti said. “We want it to be a crazy place.”