The Tampa Bay Rowdies faced their first quality opponent of the Fall season. In a league as small as the NASL, it was bound to happen sooner rather than later, and in all honesty, the performance was not all that different from the first two games of the Fall. This time, though, the San Antonio Scorpions managed to squash any late game heroics from the Rowdies and left St. Petersburg 2-0 victors putting highly coveted distance between them and the rest of the league on top of the Fall season table.
Manager Ricky Hill started an identical XI to the one in the previous week's 2-1 victory over Indy Eleven. Over the first 15 minutes, that lineup came out just as strong as they did last week. It may seem a little delusional in hindsight, but for a few brief moments it looked as if the Rowdies were going to put in the dominant performance the fans have been clamoring for all year. I mean, why not us, right?
But then, the raucous Rowdies crowd of 5,000 felt reality come crashing down on them. If there was gambling on NASL games, then there may not be any more sure bet in the entire league than the Rowdies conceding the first goal of a game. In the 30th minute, after what felt like an eternity of consecutive Scorpion corner kicks the away side managed to put one away when a header into the middle of the box was poked towards goal by San Antonio forward Tomasz Zahorski. Rowdies winger Lucky Mkosana was on the line to clear, but could not handle the shot from Zahorski. After the match, the Polish striker's goal was officially credited as an own goal by Mkosana.
After San Antonio notched the go ahead goal they seemed more than happy to sit back and absorb pressure from the Rowdies attack. They had no issue doing so as newly acquired loanee from future MLS side NYCFC Josh Saunders was solid all night in net; reading and extinguishing many long balls and crosses before they became true threats. In contrast, Rowdies 'keeper Matt Pickens showed his usual fantastic shot blocking skills but appeared to lack conviction on corners. This aspect of his game has shown to be one of his few shortcomings this year. A 'keeper with a gigantic wing span like Pickens's should be more commanding on corner kicks. But when you're the Rowdies and every team you face manages to convert the few chances they have, every flaw receives its own special spotlight.
The remainder of the match was spent almost exclusively in San Antonio's half of the field save for a few Scorpion counterattacks. The Rowdies possessed and even moved the ball around well for decent spells. The team may be benefiting from the improved field conditions at Al Lang Stadium as some of the sand patches at the last home match seem to have diminished.
By far the greatest chance for Tampa Bay came in the 60th minute. Midfielder Blake Wagner slotted a beautiful pass through the San Antonio defense down the left side to an on running Georgi Hristov. Hristov ran at goal with it and crossed to a wide open Casey Townsend who buried it in the net but it was disallowed on an apparent offside call. The replay clearly shows that Townsend was the one in an offside position when Wagner sent the initial pass to Hristov. The assistant referee, however, appears to raise his flag before Hristov even lifts his head to find Townsend in front of the net. So, who exactly he was calling offside is still uncertain to many who were in attendance last night.
Ricky Hill's substitutes were far less effective this week compared to the previous two matches. Forward Carl Cort made his Fall season debut coming on for Casey Townsend in the 64th minute. Cort won all the headers that came his way, which is to be expected. However, he managed to let two clear sitters roll past his feet with no defender or 'keeper close to him late in the game. The tenacious and energetic Evans Frimpong didn't see much of the ball on the left wing as most of the play went down Brian Shriver's side.
As the Rowdies continued to push for the equalizer in stoppage time one of the Scorpions' counter attacks finally proved fruitful as Sainey Touray found himself one on one with Pickens easily converting the game clincher.
The loss is a tough one to swallow as it hurts the Rowdies hopes of winning the Fall season outright. The battle for combined points in 2014 could easily turn into a battle for fourth place as Minnesota, New York and San Antonio all could run away with the top three spots in the next few weeks. The Rowdies now find themselves in 5th place on 16 points nestled in between Carolina on 17 points and Ft. Lauderdale with 14 points.
The good news is next up is the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, who the Rowdies have excellent history of favorable results against in the modern NASL. Next week may see the debut the recent signed young Jamaican international Ricardo Morris, who showed well in recent exhibitions against Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale. If he plays, I would expect him to do so on the left wing where Luck Mkosana hesitated a few times in front of goal the last two games. Next week's match might also clinch another Coastal Cup victory for the Rowdies over their rivals to the south. Ralph's Mob, the Tampa Bay supporters group, is taking its act on the road for the game, and I'm sure they'd love to keep the Coastal Cup on the best coast for another year.
Jake Nutting is a graduate of Brooklyn College currently working as an assistant video editor at Fig Productions in New York City. On weekends, when the sun is out you can find me kicking a ball around on the south side of Prospect Park. When the weather is uncooperative you'll probably find me buried in book or in front of movie screen. Avid Tampa Bay Rowdies fan. Rodney Marsh over Pelé forever and ever.