ST. PETERSBURG — Steevan Dos Santos hasn’t had an easy ride this season. The Rowdies forward entered Saturday with just two goals after missing almost a month due to injury, a far cry from his 12 goals in 23 appearances last season.
On Saturday, Dos Santos scored twice in the first half to help the Rowdies to a 3-1 come-from-behind win over Atlanta United 2 at Al Lang Stadium. The Rowdies (12-3-6, 42 points) are unbeaten in their last 11 games, their last loss coming April 30 at home against San Diego.
The Rowdies have won nine of those last 11 games and are now one point behind Louisville City for the top spot in the USL Championship Eastern Conference. Coach Neill Collins was happy with his team’s response after falling behind.
“(Atlanta) gambled by leaving a lot of men up (the field), and I thought we played through the press well, but we just need to take our opportunities to really take the game away from them,” he said. “So lots of positives.
“We’ve got high expectations. We know there’s things we want to improve, but again, I think I say job done.”
Dos Santos credited the unbeaten streak in part to Collins’ difficult practices in the Florida heat.
“The other teams, they don’t train in this heat,” he said, “and I think that is an advantage for us when we are playing against other teams.”
Dos Santos, 32, has three goals in his last two games. He dominated the back line of Atlanta, whose staring 11 had an average age of just over 19.
The Rowdies outshot Atlanta 29-7 and had the game’s first big scoring chance, Dos Santos hitting the post with a header from the edge of the 6-yard box off a Jake Areman corner.
Atlanta, though, struck first.
Atlanta’s Efrain Morales fouled Tampa Bay’s Leo Fernandes, who stayed down, and the Rowdies’ Jake Areman kicked the ball forward expecting to hear a whistle to stop play, but the referee allowed the Rowdies to play the advantage.
Atlanta regained possession. Tristan Trager carried ball downfield while most of the Rowdies were still anticipating play to be stopped and slipped it to Darwin Matheus, whose delicate chip over goalkeeper CJ Cochran went in off the post in the 14th minute.
Cochran had made a crucial kick save three minutes earlier after Matheus had found Jackson Conway with a cross.
“You cannot just say, ‘Oh, it’s a B team,’ " Dos Santos said of MLS Atlanta’s reserve team, “because you saw what happened. … I think you just have to approach the game as serious as possible, because if you don’t, you’re going to pay for it.”
The Rowdies tied the score in the 25th minutes on the first Dos Santos goal. Justin Garces made the initial save on a Leo Fernandes shot from a low cross by Sebastian Dalgaard, but Dos Santos was in position to pounce on the rebound.
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Dos Santos spurned a good scoring chance in the 31st minute, but he put the Rowdies ahead seven minutes later. Fernandes found himself free on the left edge of the area, and Dos Santos put Fernandes’ cross in from close range.
Fernandes was denied on the doorstep by Garces’ feet in the 65th minute, but the reigning league player of the month sealed the win for the Rowdies three minutes later.
Fernandes was fouled in the box after a pinpoint pass from former Atlanta midfielder Laurence Wyke. Fernandes scored on the resulting penalty, sending the ball across his body to his right as Garces dived the wrong way.
It was Fernandes’ team-high 11th goal of the season, good for second in the conference.
Defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele picked up a “slight knock,” Collins said, and was substituted at halftime for Nicky Law, acquired from Indy on Thursday for Juan Tejada. Collins said he wasn’t sure if Vancaeyezeele would be available next Saturday at Indy.
“It just seems every week right now (that) as we get one guy back, we get one guy down,” he said.
Still, the Rowdies have scored 44 goals this year, almost double what they had at this point last season.
“I want fans to get excited about our team,” Collins said. “And over the last few weeks, I’ve been excited watching them, so they’re doing things right.”
Contact Greg McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @McKennaGregjed.