ST. PETERSBURG — The last time Leo Fernandes set a career high in goals, he was a third-year professional with the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos. It was 2015, and the eight goals sparked his career.
That performance also impressed then-player — and now-coach — Neill Collins when the Rowdies signed him in 2017. Fernandes’ movement on the field was like a Rolls-Royce, Collins said in June.
The signing has paid dividends for the Rowdies across Fernandes’ first five seasons, but he has turned the sixth into a breakout campaign. His 14th and 15th goals of the year helped propel the Rowdies to a 6-1 win over Las Vegas on Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium.
The victory, paired with a Tulsa loss, clinched a USL Championship playoff spot for Tampa Bay (15-5-6). Its six goals were a season high. Since starting 3-3-4, the Rowdies have won 13 of 17 matches to crawl up the Eastern Conference standings with seven games remaining.
They limited Las Vegas (10-11-7) to three shot attempts, generated 24 of their own and used an offense keyed by Fernandes to make an early advantage last.
“We’re just looking at the prize right now,” Lucky Mkosana, who had a goal, said about the postseason. “It’s in our hands, and whenever we can perform, we always think about it.”
Fernandes’ scoring burst has helped lead the Rowdies’ turnaround, with all but one of his goals coming across that 17-game stretch. The Rowdies haven’t lost a match in 2022 that included a Fernandes goal. Three of those games have featured multiple tallies.
Fernandes’ first against Las Vegas came in the 37th minute, when he created enough space against his defender to convert a shot from inside the 18-yard box. That extended the Rowdies’ lead to 2-0, following defender Jordan Scarlett’s goal 13 minutes before.
“When we look back at that game, there will be lots of aspects of our performance that were very, very good because we made it very, very difficult for Las Vegas to get any kind of foothold in the game,” Collins said. “And that was because we played so well.”
Fernandes said Collins’ message at halftime centered around not letting the offense stall with a two-goal advantage. That would make the game nervy at the end, Fernandes said. They wanted a third and a fourth goal to extend their cushion.
The third came when Jake LaCava scored his 11th of the season and first since July 16. Tampa Bay soon added its fourth. Then, a fifth. Mkosana finished the scoring in second-half stoppage time in his 100th career appearance with the club.
Since Collins experimented with playing him higher up the field, Fernandes said, he has felt more comfortable finding pockets of space from match to match. He scored again in the 66th minute and assisted on Mkosana’s goal.
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Fernandes’ second goal turned the final 34-plus minutes into a quest to get him a hat trick. He nearly connected on an open shot in the 80th minute, but the Las Vegas goalkeeper saved it. Fernandes said it would’ve been nice to complete the hat trick because he can’t remember recording one since his college days at Stony Brook.
“Maybe some other (game) this year,” he joked.
The initial impression Fernandes made on the Rowdies in 2015 showed what he was capable of. But seven seasons later, Fernandes has been able to “replicate that … and more,” Collins said.
For the Rowdies sharing the field with Fernandes, it simplifies their approach on attacks, too.
“Give it to him and let him do what he’s got to do,” Scarlett said.