ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies managed only one goal against Memphis when the teams met in April, but by the 19th minute of their 2-0 win Saturday at Al Lang Stadium, they had surpassed that output.
Jake LaCava scored both goals, and the Rowdies (9-3-6) extended their unbeaten streak to eight matches.
They have won six of those eight games to help propel them closer to the top of the USL Championship Eastern Conference standings. The Rowdies’ win Saturday, coupled with Louisville City’s victory, knocked Memphis (11-4-2) from No. 1 in the conference to second, one point behind Louisville City. Tampa Bay is in third, three points back.
LaCava’s pair of first-half goals bumped his team-leading total to nine, and Tampa Bay’s defense shut out a team for the fifth time this season by allowing just one Memphis shot to reach goalkeeper CJ Cochran.
“I thought the first half, we were absolutely excellent,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “As a first half goes, it was as good as you can get.”
The game’s trajectory mirrored the early season match in Memphis, a 3-1 Rowdies loss, only flipped in Tampa Bay’s favor. On April 27, amid a month of four Tampa Bay losses, Memphis scored 20 seconds into the opening half while limiting Tampa Bay’s chances.
But the Rowdies haven’t lost since the calendar flipped to May, and at the center of that surge has been LaCava, on loan for the season from MLS’s New York Red Bulls. The forward, acquired in January, said he knew his speed and 1-on-1 attacking would seamlessly mesh into Tampa Bay’s system and he could also contribute on the counterpress.
Collins said LaCava has done “a lot of the right things.” That makes his success unsurprising, Collins said.
LaCava opened the scoring three minutes in after Memphis blocked Kyle Greig’s initial attempt from inside the 18-yard box and the ball bounced right to LaCava on the rebound. His left-foot shot got inside the left post past diving goalkeeper Trey Muse, and LaCava raced toward the sideline, pumped his fist and jump-kicked in celebration.
“I’ve scored a lot near a post this season,” LaCava said. “Seems to be my sweet spot, so I just thought I’d tuck it in there.”
On the second goal, in the 19th minute, Leo Fernandes threaded a pass across the goal line to LaCava before Muse could react, leaving the forward with an open net.
LaCava said he wanted to compose himself by taking an extra touch before the shot, which allowed Muse and a pair of defenders to tighten the shooting window. But he still directed a shot off the cluster and into the net.
“I knew that (Memphis defenders) were going to be on the goal line,” LaCava said, “so I just wanted to hit it as hard as I could into the back of the net.”
From there, the Tampa Bay defense — using four on the back line for the second straight week — prevented Memphis from scoring for just the third time this season.
In the opening 20 minutes, Memphis turned the ball over near the sidelines and committed a foul on offense. When Lucas Turci tried to back the Rowdies’ Conner Antley into the 18-yard box, Antley poked the ball away to set up a corner. And after Memphis earned a free kick in the 27th minute, an attempt to feed two cutting players on the opposite side was redirected upfield by a Greig header.
The Rowdies flipped their defensive stops into opportunities at the other end but couldn’t add a third goal. Fernandes hit the post on a penalty kick later in the first half. Yann Ekra headed the ball over Muse, but a Memphis defender stationed at the goal line countered with another header to prevent a goal. Sebastian Dalgaard ripped a shot off the crossbar in the 78th minute.
And in the final minutes of extra time, Fernandes sent a bicycle kick toward an open right corner. It missed and bounced toward the sideline as Fernandes lay flat on the ground, his arms and legs outstretched.
“The first-half performance shows what we’re capable of,” Collins said.
Contact Andrew Crane at email@example.com. Follow @CraneAndrew.