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Early offense, timely CJ Cochran saves help Rowdies snap 2-match skid

After back-to-back scoreless games, Tampa Bay wins the rematch of last year’s USL Championship final against Orange County SC.
Rowdies goalkeeper CJ Cochran makes three second-half saves as Orange County attempts 12 shots, including four on goal, that frame Saturday night.
Rowdies goalkeeper CJ Cochran makes three second-half saves as Orange County attempts 12 shots, including four on goal, that frame Saturday night. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Aug. 28

ST. PETERSBURG — From his net, goalkeeper CJ Cochran surveyed the Rowdies’ celebration at the other end and pumped his fist.

It was the 89th minute. Tampa Bay had just taken a 3-1 lead, which stood as Saturday’s final. The sequence had all started with Cochran’s long ball, too. And after a second half filled with numerous Orange County SC shots — 12 attempts, including four on goal — and a second Yann Ekra yellow cards that kept the Rowdies to 10 players, they executed one final offensive tally.

“When you get that third … you feel a little bit more secure,” Cochran said.

Cochran’s three saves — along with other timely defense from the backline — helped an early lead remain intact. The Rowdies snapped a two-match losing streak and earned a victory in a rematch of last year’s USL Championship final, which Orange County claimed at Al Lang Stadium.

“We’ve not had to ask CJ to make too many saves, but when he’s had to, he’s really come up big,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “And that’s the sign for me of a top-level goalkeeper, and he showed tonight he was a top-level goalkeeper.”

Rowdies forward Sebastian Guenzatti gets many exuberant hugs after scoring the second goal Saturday night.
Rowdies forward Sebastian Guenzatti gets many exuberant hugs after scoring the second goal Saturday night. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

Before that 89th-minute tally, the Rowdies hadn’t generated a shot on goal in the second half. Their early burst of offense — their first goals since Aug. 6, a two-match stretch that marked their first time blanked in consecutive games since 2018 — had been mitigated.

But Cochran stabilized the defense. The offseason acquisition — on loan to the Rowdies after OKC Energy FC suspended their season — only needed to make 36 saves this season entering the match, but he has also helped the Rowdies allow the fifth-fewest goals in the USL Championship.

Collins said Cochran’s second-half performance emulated a keeper playing “at the top of his game.” In the 52nd minute, Orange County’s Sean Okoli had an open shooting lane that Cochran closed by sliding toward the forward. Cochran later made another sliding save on an Orange County corner.

“You’re just seeing where the guy’s gonna make contact with the ball,” Cochran said about his sliding saves. “You’re just trying to throw your body in between that and the goal.”

At first, though, the Rowdies’ offense started to find a rhythm again. They peppered the Orange County net with chances, and Leo Fernandes scored his 13th goal of the season in the 15th minute.

Rowdies midfielder Leo Fernandes celebrates with the crowd after scoring the first goal of the night.
Rowdies midfielder Leo Fernandes celebrates with the crowd after scoring the first goal of the night. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

That’s where the score stayed until later in the frame. Sebastian Guenzatti’s shot tailed away from the left post, but Orange County defender Ian Hoffmann still tore toward the net and slid to poke Guenzatti’s shot wide. Hoffmann kept sliding — along with the ball — into the net for an own-goal.

“Exactly everything that we’ve not been the last couple of weeks, we were tonight in the first half,” Collins said.

That changed in the second half. Orange County provided most of the pressure. After Ekra picked up his second yellow card in the 56th minute, Brian Iloski scored on the ensuing free kick. Collins called that sequence “double punishment.”

Cochran said he still felt the Rowdies defended crosses well and capitalized on extra spacing with long balls, even though they knew “we were gonna be under pressure” with just 10 players.

After his long pass in the 89th minute reached a cluster of players, Fernandes attracted an extra defender and allowed for Dayonn Harris to slip behind the play. Fernandes sent the ball to Harris, and he redirected it into the net. That sparked the one final celebration — with Fernandes windmilling his arm and Cochran fist-pumping — at both ends of the same field where Orange County won the league’s final nine months prior. This time, Tampa Bay’s new goalkeeper, along with a revitalized offense, was at the forefront.

“No matter what our team — this club, I — go on and do in the rest of our careers, nothing will change that night and how I feel about it” said Collins, who added he never mentioned last year’s outcome pregame. “That was a low, low, low point, and three points tonight is good because we’ve got to all move on.”

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