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  1. Sports

Challenges, opportunities about to happen rapidly for Rowdies

ST. PETERSBURG — By the time the Rowdies step on the field tonight, it will be their first game in nearly two weeks. But that'll be all for lengthy lapses.

After their scheduled game against Fort Lauderdale postponed by rain last Saturday, Tampa Bay will play five times in 15 days starting tonight against Edmonton.

And Rowdies coach Ricky Hill isn't going to ease into the stretch. With his team seven points behind Carolina for the NASL's last playoff spot, Hill will for the first time this season start the game with three forwards.

"We're always confident. But we haven't exhibited enough this year is the ability to convert," he said. New Rowdie Corey Hertzog will start up front along with six-goal scorer Georgi Hristov and Casey Townsend (two goals).

Twice the Rowdies have switched mid-game from a 4-4-2, and in those contests they scored a total of seven goals. There's less chance for control in the midfield, but Hill is willing to sacrifice that for more scoring opportunities.

He won't have one of his key central midfielders, as son Shane Hill injured his abductor muscle in training. But defenders Frankie Sanfilippo and Takuya Yamada are nearing a return; both have missed a month. They participated in two full training sessions late this week.

Such sessions won't be as frequent in upcoming weeks, where Tampa Bay will have no more than three days rest. A usual week after a Saturday game goes: off Sunday, light training Monday (more intense for those who didn't play), training Tuesday, off Wednesday, morning workout and tactics Thursday, and chalk talk Friday.

Much of that will be condensed. And the games will have to serve as a training. Hill is fine with it.

"I don't think it hurts us badly at all," he said. "Training will be tapered down. It will be about watching who comes out of each game over-fatigued."

Hill, assistant coach Stuart Campbell and general manager Perry Van Der Beck will spend more time discussing such matters between games and depth will be important.

That helps make what Hill calls the most difficult part of his job a bit easier.

"The hardest part of my week is having to tell only 11 players they're playing," he said of picking the starting lineup. "I don't like to have to disappoint 14, 15 guys."

With tonight's lineup, Hill hopes the goals start coming. He stressed picking up three points against Edmonton, which blanked the Rowdies in their last game on Sept. 21. Wednesday night, the rival Strikers come to town to make up the game rained out last week.

Tampa Bay has little chance of winning the fall season title, so it must finish in the top four of the NASL's combined standings to make the playoffs. Minnesota and San Antonio have virtually locked up the top two places, with New York third at 36 points and Carolina (33) in the final spot.

But here's where the busy schedule helps Tampa Bay (26 points). The Rowdies' next two opponents are just ahead of them in points. Carolina plays Fort Lauderdale (tied for seventh, 15 points) twice in the next few weeks, so they can't both gain headway.

In fact, after tonight the Rowdies — who have two games in hand on Carolina — will play twice more before the Railhawks hit the field. So the Rowdies could be right back in it with four matches left.

"The extra time has given us the chance to work on various tactics, centered around improving our conversion rate. The focus is on the importance of these last seven games," Hill said.

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