ST. PETERSBURG — When midfielder Nicky Law joined the Rowdies after a midseason trade, Sebastian Guenzatti wasn’t playing much. Law noticed that one of Tampa Bay’s other veterans — the one who led the team in goals the last three seasons — was “out of the reckoning a little bit.”
In Law’s first game with the Rowdies, against Atlanta United 2 on July 23, Guenzatti was a substitute who played 28 minutes. The next game, Guenzatti started. But after a four-minute cameo on Aug. 6, something occurred that Guenzatti said hadn’t happened since his first season or two with the Rowdies: he was healthy but not in the lineup.
The difference was that in 2017, Guenzatti had been finishing his recovery from a torn ACL. In 2018, he was trying to impress a new coaching staff. At those junctures of his career, he worried about not getting another chance. But he eventually settled into a forward spot and began a trajectory that this year saw him become the Rowdies’ all-time scoring leader, with additional chances to add to his 65 goals and separate himself even more from Georgi Hristov’s previous mark of 60.
If Guenzatti’s two goals in 27 matches to start the season were a deviation from his standard, then his five goals in the last four entering Sunday’s Eastern Conference semifinal against Memphis 901 FC marked a return to “typical Seba,” midfielder Leo Fernandes said.
“He probably hasn’t scored as many goals as he would’ve liked this season, but he’s definitely making up for it now …” Law said. “He’s getting the rewards for his hard work, so long may that continue and hopefully he can keep scoring goals and keep firing us into deep territory in the playoffs.”
Guenzatti led the Rowdies in goals during the 2019 (18), ‘20 (8) and ‘21 (21) seasons, but when a similar rate didn’t follow in 2022, he tried to keep a positive attitude, believing the “good vibes” eventually would return. He scored against San Diego Loyal SC on April 30, placing him one goal away from Hristov’s record, but he remained stuck there until Sept. 10, when he tied it.
Those four months were different for Guenzatti. “Difficult times,” he said. He’d always scored goals at will, dating back to high school at Francis Lewis in Queens, New York. It was the last stage before embarking on a professional career, and Guenzatti impressed from his first year with Roger Sarmuksnis’ program.
When Sarmuksnis first saw Guenzatti as an eighth-grader at a local park, he noticed the way Guenzatti held his own against older players. He didn’t get hurt. He controlled the ball.
And he found ways to score from unorthodox positions. As a sophomore, Guenzatti maneuvered around a goal with a large wingspan to chip it past the keeper.
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“If you want to talk about angles, that there’s no way that you’re scoring, this kid would find a way,” Sarmuksnis said.
But all of that momentum, and all of those results, came to an abrupt halt at different points in Guenzatti’s career. The first came in 2016, when he went up for a 50-50 ball against the NASL’s Ottawa Fury and came down with a torn ACL. When he flew back with the New York Cosmos that night, Guenzatti didn’t know what the rest of his career would hold.
Another point came this year, when he didn’t play or score.
Guenzatti had become a staple of the Rowdies’ lineup. He joined as a “trialist” in 2017 and made the roster after he proved his ACL had healed, he said. He then cracked the starting lineup, eventually producing a multi-goal game in 2018, making Fernandes think, “He’s going to score two goals (a match) for the rest of his career.”
That pace helped Guenzatti set the Rowdies’ all-time scoring record in 18 fewer matches than Hristov.
Fernandes said Guenzatti handled this difficult season like a “total professional.” Guenzatti slowly crept back into the rotation — playing at least 63 minutes in each match since Aug. 27 — and finally broke Hristov’s record on Oct. 8.
Fernandes was in the stands that night. He had “seen every goal (Guenzatti has) scored here in Tampa” but had a different perspective against Loudoun United FC due to a red-card suspension. Fernandes was frustrated that he couldn’t be on the field to celebrate after Guenzatti blasted a penalty kick into the back of the net.
But after the match, Fernandes and the other Rowdies joined Guenzatti in the locker room. Head of soccer operations Nico Castillo handed Guenzatti the ball from his historic goal, and Guenzatti walked around to make sure everyone signed it before leaving.
In the aftermath, Guenzatti connected with Hristov. Throughout their conversations, which started as teammates in 2017 and ‘18, Hristov always told Guenzatti that he’d snap the record.
Finally, Hristov’s vision had come to fruition.
“He’s not someone that overthinks these things but I still think it’s something that you’d want to get,” Collins said. “You can see that once he’s done it, how he’s taken off.”
Up next: Eastern Conference semifinal
vs. Memphis 901 FC, 4 p.m. Sunday (postponed from Saturday because of inclement weather), AutoZone Park