ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies a needed a stoppage-time equalizer and overtime goal to down Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference finals last season.
No such late-game heroics were required Sunday night at Al Lang Stadium in the rematch of the past two conference finals as the Rowdies scrapped to a 1-0 victory over Louisville thanks to a first-half penalty kick from Leo Fernandes.
The last few days, though, have been anything but straightforward for the Rowdies (6-3-5, 23 points), who originally were scheduled to play Louisville (8-3-3, 27 points) on Saturday. The game was moved after most of the squad didn’t return from its Wednesday draw with FC Tulsa until early Saturday morning due to travel issues.
“These are the type of wins that you remember,” Fernandes said. “These gritty wins after a tough, tough week that we’ve had.”
Manager Neill Collins didn’t even make it home, crashing on goalkeeping coach Stuart Dobson’s couch before heading to the stadium Sunday.
“I thought it was probably more than professional if you know the week that we’ve had,” Collins said of the performance. “I thought the first half (had) some fantastic passages of play. We really created some great opportunities. In the second half, we had to really dig it out and really show a lot of grit.”
The first big chance of the game didn’t come until the 26th minute, when Yann Ekra took a layoff from Jake LaCava into the left side of the penalty area and had his shot deflected just beyond the far post.
The Rowdies dominated the rest of the first half, registering 11 shots to Louisville’s two.
The clearest chance of the first half, however, fell to Louisville’s Wilson Harris. The Rowdies were caught flatfooted when Corben Bone quickly took a free kick and played in to Harris, but the forward (who is tied atop the Eastern Conference with seven goals) failed to hit the target.
The Rowdies then took the lead in the 43rd minute after pressing high up the field following a goal kick played short by Louisville.
Jake Areman, a constant threat all night with LaCava on the left, blocked a Louisville clearance that fell to Fernandes. The sixth-year Rowdie was dragged down in the box by Louisville’s Wesley Charpie before he coolly slotted his spot kick down the middle of the goal as Daniel Faundez dove to his right.
Faundez was forced to come off the bench after Louisville’s starting goalkeeper, Kyle Morton, was injured in the second minute on a collision in the box. He remained down for almost seven minutes before walking off the field with assistance.
“Whenever I step up to penalty kicks, I feel really confident in myself,” said Fernandes, who scored his third goal this season. “And especially when I draw the foul, I get that extra confidence.”
The Rowdies had multiple chances to add a second goal in first half stoppage time. LaCava forced Faundez into a save from close range, and Kyle Greig got on the end of a William Conner Antley cross minutes later but saw his header skim wide.
Against Tulsa, the Rowdies dominated but allowed Tulsa to score with their only shot on target. On Sunday, though, the Rowdies stifled a Louisville attack that had scored 11 goals in its last four games (not counting U.S. Open Cup competition).
Louisville, which would have gone to the top of the conference standings with a win, had just three shots in the second half and failed to register a shot on target all night as the Rowdies secured their first clean sheet in over two months (April 2 at the Oakland Roots).
Fernandes said that meant goalkeeper CJ Cochran owed the squad donuts on Monday.
“To finally get that shutout, it’s a great feeling,” he said.