ST. PETERSBURG — With the Rowdies hosting the Eastern Conference last-place New York Red Bulls II in their regular-season finale Saturday at Al Lang Stadium, they experimented with their lineup to get different players playing time.
Tate Johnson, 17, started on defense. Dayonn Harris, usually a spark off the bench, opened in the midfield.
But leading scorer Leo Fernandes provided the lone goal in the Rowdies’ 1-0 win. Tampa Bay generated shot after shot en route to 21 attempts but couldn’t sneak another past goalkeeper Anthony Marcucci.
The Rowdies (20-7-7), who extended their winning streak to four matches, entered the night with a chance to finish second in the conference and host USL Championship playoff matches through the East semifinals, but Memphis 901 defeated Tulsa to stay second. Memphis finished with 68 points, one more than the Rowdies, who finished third.
The Rowdies host Miami in an East quarterfinal match next Saturday.
“It would’ve been nice to get more goals to accompany the performance (Saturday),” coach Neill Collins said. “But I think that’s the only thing that will take away from people not giving the performance the credit it deserves, is the fact that goals weren’t there to match.”
Still, Collins said he feels the “best I’ve felt about this group all year” entering the playoffs. He called Saturday’s performance “fantastic,” as good as it was against Loudoun United on Oct. 8, when the Rowdies scored a club-record eight goals in a win.
In the 37th minute, Fernandes headed a pass between Marcucci and the post to give Tampa Bay its lead. It was a fitting finish to Fernandes’ regular season. He increased his team-leading goal total to 19, 11 more than his previous career high.
He scored after Sebastian Guenzatti’s shot was blocked. The ball cycled back around to Harris, and he directed a pass inside the 18-yard box. Fernandes, positioned in front of Marcucci, was waiting.
“I’ve had a couple opportunities this year with headers and I haven’t put them on frame, and (they’ve been) missed chances,” Fernandes said. “So I think my No. 1 goal was to put it on target, and I’m happy it went in.”
Eleven of the Rowdies’ 21 shot attempts made it on goal. But nine saves from Marcucci helped contain Tampa Bay’s offense. The Rowdies made mistakes that unraveled possessions, too.
Johnson, who was told by Collins two hours before the game that he would make his first career start, helped set up a shot from Jake LaCava that Marcucci saved. Johnson had shown composure and calmness in his appearances as a substitute, Collins said.
The win may have come at a cost. Midfielder Lewis Hilton exited in the 11th minute. Collins said after the game that it was too early for an update on his status.
Tampa Bay also had midfielder/defender Laurence Wyke back for the match. He had been suspended 12 games by the USL Championship over “allegations of racially discriminatory behavior” in a match against Monterey Bay on Oct. 2, but the league’s Independent Disciplinary Panel overturned the suspension on appeal Friday.
Collins has said throughout the season that it’ll take the Rowdies’ entire roster to make a postseason push. After having just three players with five or more goals in 2021, the Rowdies doubled that number this season. Tampa Bay still had its prolific, go-to options, but it added more complements.
A few of those found a way to contribute Saturday.
“Whether you’re in good form, bad form, indifferent form, it’s a different game next Saturday night,” Collins said. “But I’m certainly much happier than I maybe was a couple of months ago.”