ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies will look to extend their unbeaten start against the last team to hand them a regular-season home defeat when they host Hartford Athletic Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium.
The Rowdies (2-0-1) will be playing their third match in eight days, while Hartford has hit the pitch just once, a competitive 2-1 loss last Saturday in Pittsburgh.
“I think it’s difficult, because they’ve only played one game and for half of that game they had 10 men,” said Rowdies head coach Neill Collins. “I expect them to be a real threat in the attack. They’re a team that likes to go forward and try and get their good, creative players into the game. We had difficult games against them last year, so I’m just expecting more of the same.”
All four meetings were decided by a goal, the most memorable a July 13 encounter in which the Rowdies missed a handful of great chances in the first half, then fired 10 shots from the 89th minute on as Hartford desperately held on to win, 1-0. In August, Tampa Bay won 1-0 while holding a 22-2 advantage in shots.
In their final clash of the season in September, Hartford ended Tampa Bay’s USL record shutout streak at 891 minutes, but the Rowdies broke through for two goals in a 2-1 win.
Tampa Bay’s offense is picking up steam. After a season-opening tie at Birmingham in which things didn’t start flowing until late, the Rowdies have outscored Indy Eleven and Atlanta United 2 by a combined 5-0 in back-to-back victories.
Jake LaCava, on loan from New York Red Bulls to boost the attack, has done just that with goals in both victories. But Sebastian Dalgaard has also converted twice, adding to the list of weapons that begins with last year’s three leading scorers: Sebastian Guenzatti, Steevan Dos Santos and Leo Fernandes.
“We have some great goal-scorers, and I haven’t been scoring as many, but it’s definitely been one of my main focuses this year, to get some more goals, more assists,” Dalgaard said. “Maybe I could have had a couple more against Atlanta. ... I’m just happy to get some chances.”
Dalgaard already has doubled his goal count from last season. His assured finish gave the Rowdies a 1-0 lead against Birmingham in the opener, and he ended a flurry in front of the penalty box by hammering in a shot with the outside of his right foot against Atlanta.
The television announcers perfectly described the blast as “Danish Dynamite”; the 30-year-old hails from Odense, Denmark.
“There were a lot of different things going on, but when (the ball) fell down in front of me I was just trying to get a good hit on it,” Dalgaard said. “It felt great, even greater just looking up seeing where it went. I was really happy with that strike.”
Dalgaard previously played for Hartford, scoring five goals, before Collins signed him away to start off 2020. He had 18 goals in three seasons for Danish squad BK Marienlyst, played three seasons in the MLS, and then returned to Denmark for a seven-goal 2018 before coming back stateside for his Hartford stint.
“Seb D’s been a really important part of our squad for two years now,” said Collins. “Really key player. But like every other player, we’re always looking at, how can we push him to get better? He’s been a great creator, but his ability to (score), we see it in training and we’re starting to see the rewards. If it continues like this, he’s going to continue to be a huge influence on this team.”
Dalgaard seems firmly entrenched on the right wing, with Fernandes on the left. But to Collins’ delight, the competition for starting spots continues.
Hartford features big offensive talent, including its top two scorers from last season, Juan Carlos Obregon (10 goals) and Danny Barrera (eight goals, 12 assists). It also added Jamaican national Peter-Lee Vassell, who drew a red card against Pittsburgh but had his suspension rescinded and will be available Saturday night.
vs. Hartford, 7:30, Al Lang Stadium Streaming: ESPN+