MEMPHIS — Leo Fernandes’ goal from the penalty spot in the ninth minute of second-half stoppage time sent the Rowdies to a 1-0 victory over Memphis 901 and into the USL Championship Eastern Conference final Sunday.
The Rowdies travel to Louisville City, the top team in the conference in the regular season, to play for the East title Saturday.
The game packed all its controversy and almost all its goalmouth action into the second-half stoppage time.
In the third minute of added time, Memphis was awarded a penalty shot when Rowdies defender Jordan Scarlett was whistled for what appeared to be an innocuous screen on Phillip Goodrum as Tampa Bay goalie Phil Breno made a long clearance upfield. Memphis’ Aaron Molloy took the shot, but Breno made the save on the shot to the goal’s left corner, pushing the ball wide of the post.
“I know that was kind of (Molloy’s) sweet spot,” said Breno. “It was maybe two minutes of down time from when the foul happened to when he took the kick. I knew there was too much time for him to think, and I just knew he was going to go with his bread and butter. I honestly just dove. I didn’t react to his shot, I just dove.”
A minute after that, the Rowdies got a penalty chance.
The Rowdies’ Steevan Dos Santos sent a ball upfield into the path of teammate Sebastian Guenzatti. The Rowdies’ Dayonn Harris got to the ball first and was brought down by Memphis goalkeeper Trey Muse. Fernandes converted the penalty, sending his shot to the right corner as Muse went the opposite way on the Rowdies’ only shot on target of the match.
“At that point, I had no doubt in Leo,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “With the season he’s had, I had no doubt he would put it in. I think our club, not just our players, but our club, earned that moment in a really tight game.
“I think six months ago we lose that game, maybe even three months ago we lose that game. The players have really bonded together and found a spirit over the last two months. I’ve seen a different focus as they’ve gotten to this time of year.”
Until the ending, the match had been tightly played.
It wasn’t until the 17th minute that the first real effort on goal arrived on a half-volley by Memphis’ Derek Dodson that went wide of the right post. In the 32nd minute, Memphis’ Jeremy Kelly took a shot from 25 yards, but neither side produced a shot on target in the opening 45 minutes.
“Tough game, typical playoff game on the road against a very good team,” Fernandes said. “(Memphis) did well keeping possession. We were very good at staying compact and limiting their opportunities.”
After registering only two shots in the opening half, the Rowdies brought on Dos Santos at the break, and the veteran forward’s physicality started to have an effect. He produced the best chance for Tampa Bay to that point in the 57th minute, but his shot off the right post that was turned toward the net on the rebound by Fernandes was called back for a handball in the buildup.
Molloy produced the first shot on target with five minutes to go. He stole possession as the Rowdies tried to move upfield and curled a low shot to the right corner that forced Breno to make a good save.
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USL Championship: Eastern Conference final
at Louisville, 7:30 Saturday