ST. PETERSBURG — Lucky Mkosana scored twice late to help the Rowdies erase a 2-0 deficit and force overtime against Louisville in Saturday night’s USL Championship Eastern Conference final at Al Lang Stadium. Tampa Bay capitalized on that bit of luck with Steevan Dos Santos’ goal in extra time for a 3-2 win.
“They proved they’re a great team,” Tampa Bay coach Neill Collins said of his group. “Great teams can come back 2-nil at home. It says a lot about their character.”
The Rowdies host Orange County in the USL Championship title game Nov. 28. Orange County beat San Antonio in penalty kicks in the Western Conference final Saturday night.
For a second straight season, the Rowdies (26-7-2) defeated Louisville in the conference final.
Last year’s USL Championship title game against Phoenix was canceled due to multiple positive coronavirus results for Tampa Bay.
Dos Santos, who missed last weekend’s conference semifinal win against Birmingham but returned to the lineup Saturday, headed in a cross from Laurence Wyke for the winner in the first half of extra time. Tampa Bay goalkeeper Evan Louro preserved the win with a stellar save in the second session of extra time by punching away a blast from Oscar Jimenez.
The Rowdies tied the score at 2 on Mkosana’s header into the right side of the net off a cross from Forrest Lasso on the final attack of second-half stoppage time. That brought a raucous crowd of 7,120 to its feet and rewarded a late push by Tampa Bay.
The Rowdies earned homefield advantage throughout the playoffs by posting a league-best 71 points in the regular season, but for most of the game against Louisville, things did not appear so advantageous for the home team.
Louisville took a 2-0 halftime lead on a nifty backdoor goal and an unlucky bounce for Tampa Bay. Louisville’s Brian Ownby tucked the ball just inside the right post off a cross from Jimenez in the 10th minute, then Lasso inadvertently deflected the ball past Louro for an own goal in the 23rd.
“There was a lot wrong in the first half,” Collins said.
Then Mkosana took over.
After at least three kicks from in close, two by Dos Santos, did not get through, the ball ricocheted out to Mkosana. The midfielder drilled a low shot past goalkeeper Chris Hubbard into the lower right side of the net in the 83rd minute. His tying goal came in the sixth minute of stoppage time.
“Obviously in front of our fans, nothing can ever surpass that,” Mkosana said in comparing last year’s conference championship win on the road with winning the conference title at home. “I feel like this team’s special. We trust the coaching staff, and we trust each other.”