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Rowdies’ Leo Fernandes wins USL Championship MVP award

The midfielder scored a combined 17 goals over his first five seasons with Tampa Bay before exploding for a career-high 19 in 2022.
Leo Fernandes scored a team-high 19 goals for the Rowdies during the regular season. The 30-year-old also added nine assists.
Leo Fernandes scored a team-high 19 goals for the Rowdies during the regular season. The 30-year-old also added nine assists. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Nov. 10|Updated Nov. 11

ST. PETERSBURG — Rowdies midfielder Leo Fernandes has been named the USL Championship’s MVP, the league announced Thursday, after he scored a team-high 19 goals during the regular season.

Fernandes, who earned 38% of the vote, was selected over Aaron Molloy (20%) of Memphis 901 FC and Hadji Barry (9%) of Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC.

After scoring a combined 17 goals over his first five seasons with Tampa Bay, Fernandes used four multi-goal games to shatter his career-high in 2022. His previous high was eight goals with the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos in 2015.

Fernandes’ nine assists also led the Rowdies. He’s the first Tampa Bay player to win the USL Championship’s MVP award, according to the league’s release.

Though he couldn’t quite top Sebastian Guenzatti’s club-record 21 goals in 2021, Fernandes became the Rowdies’ go-to option when Guenzatti struggled to produce at the same rate this year. Fernandes scored just once in the first 10 matches before exploding for 11 goals across the next 11 games beginning May 21 against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.

The stretch resulted in a player of the month award for Fernandes and sparked a 13-match unbeaten streak for the Rowdies.

It also allowed both Fernandes and his club to overcome the effects of a slow start, helping Tampa Bay crawl toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings — remaining in the hunt for a top-two finish until the final weekend — and building the foundation for strong campaigns. In the playoffs, Fernandes scored on a penalty kick to lift the Rowdies past Memphis in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Earlier this month, the USL Championship named Fernandes and defender Aaron Guillen to its All-League First Team. The Rowdies were one of three teams to have multiple players selected. Guillen also was a finalist for the league’s defender of the year award. Jake LaCava was a finalist for young player of the year.

This season marked Guillen’s third with Tampa Bay, and he started all 34 regular-season matches on the Rowdies’ backline. He played 3,033 out of a possible 3,060 minutes, continuing a trend of reliability that started in 2020 — his first year with the club — when Guillen played every minute of the shortened season.

After knocking off No. 2 Memphis 901 FC, third-seeded Tampa Bay lost to No. 1 Louisville City FC in the Eastern Conference final. Neither team scored in the first 90 minutes, but Louisville City snapped the tie in the 108th minute despite spending the final 26 minutes with 10 players after a red card.

New deal: The St. Petersburg City Council approved a three-year management agreement between the Rowdies and the city for the team to remain at Al Lang Stadium through 2025.

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