Finally fully prepared, Rowdies hope to regain their stride

With proper time to practice, Tampa Bay is hopeful heading into Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh.
Rowdies midfielder Lewis Hilton was named to the USL Championship team of the week for his performance in a 5-1 win over Phoenix Rising.
Rowdies midfielder Lewis Hilton was named to the USL Championship team of the week for his performance in a 5-1 win over Phoenix Rising. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published May 20, 2022|Updated May 21, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — The best week of the Rowdies’ season so far might have been one in which they played no matches.

After a grind of a schedule that made it difficult to practice between games, the Rowdies finally had a proper week to prepare, and it paid off in a 5-1 demolition of Phoenix on Sunday.

This week, Tampa Bay had a relatively normal stretch to get ready for another strong opponent, as Pittsburgh visits Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night.

“We hardly trained for two weeks, and the games just kept coming thick and fast,” coach Neill Collins said. “We’re a team that, when we get the opportunity to prepare, we’re at our best. So it was great to do that. The players showed the benefits of that.

“That time will stand us in good stead for the rest of the season.”

The Rowdies played five matches during a 22-day stretch, including three straight on the road in eight days. Between the games, Tampa Bay had time only to travel and recover. After the last road game, a 3-1 loss April 27 at Memphis, it returned home to play three days later.

Each of the Rowdies’ last three opponents had at least six days off beforehand. San Diego had nearly two weeks off. Still, Tampa Bay led that game with 15 minutes left before giving up a pair of late scores in a 3-2 loss.

The Rowdies had a full two weeks off between matches before meeting Phoenix, last year’s Western Conference regular-season champion. It didn’t show at first, as the Rising went ahead 1-0 in the first 20 minutes. But a memorable score got Tampa Bay going less than 10 minutes later, as Leo Fernandes delivered a back-heel pass to Jake LaCava, who scored his team-high fifth goal.

Midfielder Lewis Hilton, named to the USL Championship team of the week for his performance, delivered a 30-yard through ball to Dayonn Harris, who chipped it past the Phoenix goalkeeper for the lead. Right before halftime, Jake Areman’s full-field run ended with a pass from LaCava and Areman’s goal to make it 3-1.

“There’s no guarantees when you play Pittsburgh, or when you play any team in this league,” Collins said. “I think what the result against Phoenix did was show us what we’re capable of, what I thought we were capable of. There’s still a couple of things that we need to iron out, and we’ve still got a couple of important guys nursing injuries.”

Valued defender/right wingback Conner Antley missed the Phoenix game and should be out again Saturday. Harris and Areman, who had combined for one goal and six starts but earned the call against Phoenix during the productive week of practice, left the game with injuries shortly after scoring. Fernandes, who started and performed well in more of an attacking role, slotted into Areman’s wing position as a result.

Louisville City (7-1-3, 24 points) leads the Eastern Conference, with second-place Pittsburgh (7-2-1, 22 points) six up on the fifth-place Rowdies (4-3-4, 16 points).

It makes Saturday’s game critical.

Pittsburgh, which went 2-1-1 against Tampa Bay last season, features a lot of the same talent, led by Dane Kelly, who is tied for the league lead with six goals. Kenardo Forbes, the USL Championship’s all-time assist leader with 49, also is back.

The Riverhounds have shut out three of their last four opponents, including back-to-back 1-0 victories at home. Before that, Pittsburgh was shut out in three of four contests.

“While it’s going to be a really tough game against Pittsburgh, we always like ourselves at home,” Collins said.

The Rowdies then have 10 days before their next match.