Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – After his long-range blast against FC Cincinnati early in the season, you might have thought opposing defenses might have learned to not back off from Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Marcel Schäfer.
On Wednesday night, though, the former Bundesliga standout was offered the same opportunity against the New York Red Bulls II, and grabbed it fully.
“Maybe it’s too dangerous to give me that much space, but I think you know my normal play that I like to assist my teammates,” said Schäfer. “I really enjoy through my whole career assisting my teammates rather than scoring. In this situation I didn’t see anyone so in Germany you say ‘I took my heart in my hand and shot’ and I think it was a great goal.”
Not only was it a great goal – which landed at the No. 4 spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 on Wednesday night – but it capped a marvelous first-half display that also saw Schäfer provide a telling assist for his 10th of the season as the Rowdies took a 3-2 victory in their regular-season home finale in front of 5,620 fans at Al Lang Stadium to book their place in the USL Cup Playoffs.
After going behind to New York, which itself was fighting to boost its postseason hopes, Schäfer provided the quick response to get the crowd back into the game. Stealing an errant pass in midfield, Schäfer quickly drove forward before finding Joe Cole in space on the right side of the penalty area, and the former England international fired home a low finish for his seventh goal of the season in the 18th minute.
While Schäfer’s forte has been setting up others in his first season in Tampa Bay – his assist to Cole was his 10th of the season, one back of league-leader Chris Wehan of Reno 1868 FC – he then turned finisher to give the Rowdies a two-goal lead by the halftime break. The first arrived in the 25th minute as his run between two defenders was well found by Georgi Hristov for a low finish from the left side of the penalty area.
Then, though, came what has proven this season to be Schäfer’s specialty. Taking a pass from Cole around 45 yards from goal, the 33-year-old drove forward into the left channel. When New York’s defense backed off, Schäfer fired and found the top-left corner of the net.
While New York hit back nine minutes into the second half on a great goal of its own, a long, precise pass by Arun Basuljevic setting up Junior Flemmings for a breakaway finish, that would be as close as the visitors got after Jordan Scarlett was sent off in the 63rd minute. With the win, the Rowdies booked their place in the postseason, and moved into second place in the Eastern Conference standings.
“It was important that we won the game,” said Schäfer. “It was our target that today we clinch the playoffs and today we did that. We did a great job today. The whole team did a great job today and now we are in the playoffs with two more games left to go. It was great win our final home [game] because this place is like a fortress to us.”
Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
The victory was the Rowdies’ 11th at home this season, the most in the Eastern Conference and currently tied with Western Conference-leader Real Monarchs SLC for the league-lead. As such, holding onto that position and the No. 2-seed in the East for the USL Cup Playoffs could be essential to the club’s chances at claiming the USL Cup in November.
“Fantastic job tonight,” said Cole. “We played well first half, second half we was a little off it, but we got the job done, and it’s a credit to the crowd for cheering us through.”
With two road games remaining, starting with a visit to Western Conference side San Antonio FC in a fascinating interconference matchup at Toyota Field, the Rowdies are hoping they can hold off the challenge of the third-place Charleston Battery and fourth-place Charlotte Independence, both of whom sit a point back with two games to go.
With the club’s first trip to the postseason since it won a championship in 2012 secured, though, the Rowdies are looking forward to what the playoffs will bring.
“It’s a great achievement making it back into the playoffs for the first time since 2012,” said Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell. “The players deserve an enormous amount of praise for that and they put us in a great place with two games remaining in the season. It’s been too long for a team like the Rowdies to not be in the playoffs since 2012, so it’s great for the club.”