ST. PETERSBURG — Before every game that CJ Cochran started, backup Phil Breno found the Rowdies’ primary goalkeeper and told him to “go out there and have a great game.” It became a routine for each of Tampa Bay’s 10 games after Breno arrived in the middle of the season.
But this week, those roles flipped.
Cochran fractured his tibia in the Rowdies’ last game, and Breno became the starter for Friday’s game against Birmingham Legion FC, which ended in a 1-1 tie. When Breno visited Cochran after his surgery the day before the game, the former starter delivered a similar message to the ones he had received.
“A little vice versa,” Breno said.
Breno’s four saves in his first start with the Rowdies (16-7-7) helped Tampa Bay earn one point against Birmingham (16-8-7). He allowed an early goal but stabilized the defense as Leo Fernandes scored the equalizer and the offense tried to break the tie. Tampa Bay generated 17 shot attempts, but a lack of patience in the final third of the field prevented a second goal, said Fernandes and head coach Neill Collins.
“Not easy coming in like that,” Collins said, “but he did very well.”
The Rowdies have gone three consecutive matches without a win after clinching a playoff spot on Sept. 3. With 55 points, they sit even with Birmingham for third place in the Eastern Conference.
The Rowdies don’t use their backup goalies much. The last two seasons, Tampa Bay’s starting keeper has played 4,320 — about 98% — of the possible minutes. Once Cochran won the starting job over Raiko Arozarena in May, he started every game that followed. In July, Arozarena was exchanged on loan for Breno.
The strategy worked until Cochran fractured his tibia. He had season-ending surgery earlier this week.
That left Breno, who started 10 USL Championship games between 2019 and 2020. He was Forward Madison’s starter the last two years in USL League One. When he arrived in St. Petersburg, he had to adjust to a new club while playing behind Cochran.
Breno opened Friday’s game with a key save in the early minutes, diving forward to stop a shot. There weren’t nerves before that play, Breno said, but the save was still a relief.
Birmingham opened the scoring a few minutes later. A long ball missed the Rowdies players and was collected by Juan Agudelo. He sent a pass to Marlon Santos, who shot high off the crossbar — while Breno bit low and right — and into the net.
“Even if I extended fully, I don’t think I could’ve gotten it,” Breno said. “Bar-down is a really tough save to have, especially when I’m tracking across the goal.”
But Fernandes tied the game seven minutes later. He and Sebastian Dalgaard executed a give-and-go at the perimeter of the 18-yard box, and Fernandes weaved through the Birmingham defense. He twisted his left foot to slice a shot past Matt Van Oekel. It was Fernandes’ 16th goal of the season, doubling his previous career-high set in 2015.
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That was all the offense the Rowdies — fourth in the USL Championship with 59 goals — could generate. Fernandes said they weren’t connecting the “simple pass.”
“Trying to maybe invent a little bit too much when we could’ve just swung it around a little bit more and more gaps would’ve opened up,” Fernandes said.
Instead, Breno and the defense helped secure the tie. It was a “jarring” stretch after witnessing Cochran’s injury, Breno said. But he wanted to stay in the moment and avoid emotions that he said “kinda psyched” him out, too.
The result: a “very assured performance,” Collins said, that stemmed from Breno earning the trust of his teammates, trusting himself and focusing on the build-up of his last two months with the team instead of the week-long sprint he just endured.
“That’s what we expect him to do, and I thought he was great (Friday),” Fernandes said. “He looked confident, comfortable there.”