ST. PETERSBURG — Leo Fernandes, back in the lineup after a red-card suspension, didn’t waste much time before impacting the Rowdies’ 3-1 win over El Paso Locomotive on Wednesday at Al Lang Stadium. He scored one goal early and added another late.
But the Rowdies — missing goalkeeper CJ Cochran due to a season-ending injury and midfielder Laurence Wyke as the result of a suspension — needed their defense to seal a third consecutive victory. With Tampa Bay leading 2-0, an El Paso team that needed a win to stay alive for a USL Championship Western Conference postseason spot controlled possession in the second half and eventually trimmed the Rowdies’ lead.
But key saves by Phil Breno and blocked shots by Tampa Bay players preserved the win, keeping the Rowdies’ push for a top-two finish in the Eastern Conference intact. The Rowdies (19-7-7) trail second-place Memphis 901 by one point. Both teams have one regular-season game remaining. A Tampa Bay win Saturday paired with a Memphis loss or draw would flip their order in the standings.
“You’re playing against a team that’s got to win,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said of El Paso. “They’ve got to come out. They’re going to try to keep the ball. But as soon as they lose it, we can take that opportunity to transition it, and I thought we did that very well.”
It was Tampa Bay’s first Wednesday home game of the season, a match originally scheduled for Sept. 28 but postponed due to the anticipated impact of Hurricane Ian. That left the Rowdies with three matches in eight days to close the regular season, “not ideal,” Collins said.
The Rowdies’ offense didn’t operate at the same rate as in their last win, when they scored a club-record eight goals without Fernandes. But he converted first Wednesday when he snuck toward the back post in the 16th minute. He slid forward, synced his dive with Jake LaCava’s crossing pass and deposited his team- leading 17th goal into the net.
Later in the half, Fernandes threaded a ball to Sebastian Guenzatti between the legs of a defender. The El Paso goalkeeper saved the initial shot, but Guenzatti — who recently set the Rowdies’ career goals record — followed the rebound for a score, giving him goals in three of his last five matches after going scoreless for 14.
“We need (Guenzatti) to be scoring, especially now going into playoffs,” Fernandes said. “He’s such an important player for this club. … For him to start heating up at the right moment is so big for us.”
Tampa Bay’s first-half performance kept the chance for a second consecutive shutout alive. It was a promising sign for the Rowdies. Their offense entered the night with a league-best 69 goals, but their defense and midfield have been depleted.
In the first minute of the second half, Breno stretched left for a save. Shooting lanes continued to open for the Locomotive — one in the 51st minute, a second in the 53rd, another in the 54th — but Tampa Bay deflected opportunities with legs, chests and heads. Fernandes dove and blocked a shot from Ricardo Zacarias after a set piece, too.
“That’s, first and foremost, just desire to keep the ball out of the net,” Collins said.
Fernandes thought the Rowdies did a strong job of blocking the middle, which forced El Paso wide. The Locomotive had 12 shot attempts but only two on goal. Tampa Bay just couldn’t find a way to build its lead any higher. Fernandes missed a penalty kick himself.
El Paso cut its deficit to one in the 72nd minute when Ander Egiluz headed in a corner kick.
Then, as the clock neared 90 minutes, Fernandes collected the ball near midfield. He just wanted to dribble at that point — “as long as I can go,” he said. He weaved between two defenders.
After a “sloppy tackle,” Fernandes sprinted toward the net alone and chipped in a shot that sealed the win.
“The only disappointment was that we didn’t take more of our chances or take more of the opportunities that we had,” Collins said. “But really, really positive performance. I thought when we lost that goal we did great, because we never looked like losing another one.”
Contact Andrew Crane at email@example.com. Follow @CraneAndrew.