ST. PETERSBURG — The goal came on a long shot, off the foot of Nicky Law outside the 18-yard box, but everything started near the Miami end line. There, Sebastian Guenzatti tried to avoid committing a foul.
A Rowdies corner in the 58th minute had deflected off Guenzatti and veered toward the out-of-bounds line at Al Lang Stadium, but he battled around a defender for positioning. It would’ve been easy for the defender to fall and for the referee to call a foul, Guenzatti said. Instead, the forward timed his poke and chipped the ball away to help Tampa Bay keep possession.
Then came the cross that bounced back toward Law. And then came the goal that lifted the Rowdies to a 3-1 victory in the USL Championship Eastern Conference quarterfinals Saturday night. Guenzatti scored the other two goals for the Rowdies, giving him five in the last four matches.
Tampa Bay will travel next weekend to face Memphis 901 in the conference semifinals.
“As a midfielder, when crosses go in, you kind of try and get to the edge of the box and just hope it kind of comes out,” Law said. “Came at me quite quick, so I kind of made my mind up, really, that I needed to hit the ball. But yeah, didn’t expect to hit it as cleanly as that, obviously.”
Of all the potential scorers on the Rowdies’ offense — a unit that generated a club-record 73 goals during the regular season — Law was one of the least likely options to snap that 1-1 tie. The 34-year-old had scored only once with Tampa Bay after a midseason trade from Indy Eleven. He’d scored only five times total across the last two years of USL Championship play after transitioning from a professional career in England, where he played at some of the highest levels.
But his performance the last four or five games impressed Rowdies coach Neill Collins, and that prompted him to leave Law in the starting lineup. Watching him score in a key moment Saturday was “obviously satisfying,” Collins said.
“These are kind of maybe the nights where the coaching staff kind of looked for someone like myself, with a bit of experience in big games,” Law said. “I was just delighted to be able to pay back a little bit of that faith for the coaching staff in obviously bringing me here.”
Guenzatti provided the initial goal and the insurance tally. In the 50th minute, Leo Fernandes maneuvered past a Miami defender on the break and managed to get a shot off. Goalkeeper Jake McGuire deflected it, but Guenzatti converted the rebound for a 1-0 lead.
Miami quickly responded, though. Rowdies goalkeeper Phil Breno blocked to some degree a shot from Joaquin Rivas, but the ball squeaked underneath his outstretched body and past the line.
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Law’s goal snapped the tie four minutes later. Then, after a corner attempt that was knocked down, Guenzatti collected the ball near the net and directed a shot into the corner. It was a messy sequence, Guenzatti said. Collins said it was “just the most unorthodox finish.” The goal gave Guenzatti his fifth in the last four games after scoring just two in his previous 27 this season.
The match started as a slow-moving, physical game. The teams combined for 13 fouls in the opening 45 minutes, but several other tackles ended with Collins or Miami coach Anthony Pulis — or any combination of players from both sides — pleading for a whistle. Possession cycled along the back lines for most of the first half.
Near halftime, the Rowdies had their best chance: Tampa Bay earned a free kick, but Law blasted the ball off the crossbar.
Collins said the Rowdies made some tweaks with about 10 minutes remaining in the half that paid dividends going forward.
“By and large, I thought we had moments where we could have done better, but I thought also Miami built up well and caused us a couple issues,” Collins said about the first half.
After building their two-goal cushion, the Rowdies stalled. They wanted to keep the ball away from Miami. Miami wanted to prevent them from doing that. Breno needed to make a save — directing traffic from his perch in net — and let time leak until the final whistle blew.
And when it did, when the one last shrill echoed through Al Lang Stadium, Guenzatti picked up the ball and chucked it into the air. It kept rising, and then fell and bounced toward the opposite end of the field as the Rowdies celebrated.
For one week, they did enough to advance.