ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Facing a side sitting six points above it in the Eastern Conference standings while looking to snap a four-game winless streak, taking victory on Saturday night was essential for the Tampa Bay Rowdies as it welcomed Indy Eleven to Al Lang Stadium.
Thanks to an inspired display by Jamaican winger Junior Flemmings, who finished the night with a goal and two assists, the Rowdies catapulted themselves back into the playoff picture with a 3-1 win that the hoped would pave the way to a route back into the top eight in the long run.
“We want to make Al Lang Stadium a fortress where guys have to think twice before they come here and play,” said Flemmings. “We want to bring that back. I think we went out there tonight and from the get-go we started pressuring them.”
With a pair of assists in the opening 19 minutes – setting up Stefano Bonomo and Georgi Hristov – Flemmings came out of the gate flying as the Rowdies scored just their fifth and sixth first-half goals at Al Lang Stadium this season. After losing just once in the regular season a year ago on home turf, the Rowdies had gone just 1-2-3 in their last six home games prior to Saturday night, a key factor in the club’s slide outside the playoff positions.
Even on Saturday night there was a little wobble after the side had taken its two-goal lead as Indy simply cut through the Rowdies’ defense a minute after Hristov’s goal to allow former local high school standout Eugene Starikov all the space in the world to finish off Tyler Pasher’s near-post cross from the left. That moment aside, though, the Rowdies did enough well at the back to stave off Indy’s pressure for an equalizer, with Papé Diakité stepping in for his debut and going 84 minutes to boost an injury-riddled back line.
“That was an exceptional performance considering that he flew in from Senegal a week ago,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “It’s a long flight and it’s been a hot week. We trained hard. I just felt I had to put him in because I felt we needed that presence and that aerial ability and that desire to defend the goal. Hunter Gorskie has played every minute of every match up until now and he deserves a well-earned rest. Papé will only get better because that was a big ask for him.”
The man of the night, however, was Flemmings, who took the pressure off the Rowdies with a minute to go with an excellent header that found the bottom-right corner from Hristov’s cross from the left. His fourth goal in Rowdies colors since his offseason move from the New York Red Bulls II, Flemmings’ goal was a reward for a tremendous all-round display.
“I’ve spoken before, including the first night I took the job, that I think Junior is a fantastic player,” said Collins. “He’s young and he’s got a lot of potential in him, but I think it’s important that we just keep working with him, keep giving him the freedom to play and keep putting good players around him to help him. He’ll score goals, he’ll create goals and he works extremely hard as well. That’s all you want in an attacking player.”
Having closed the gap on six-placed Indy to only three points and getting the added boost of Ottawa Fury FC’s late win against Nashville SC, the Rowdies are now only two points off the top eight. But as the New York Red Bulls II visit Al Lang Stadium next Saturday night, the work is far from done even after what could be a season-changing victory.