ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Having outshot their visitors 9-1 and had a pair of goals ruled out for offside in the first half – with near-misses having also just prevented the side from taking the lead – there could have been a sense of frustration in the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ locker room at the halftime break on Saturday night.
But when Hunter Gorskie – handed the captain’s armband for the night – tapped home a close-range finish just four minutes into the second half any lingering tension the hosts might have held evaporated into the humid night air, setting the stage for a 3-0 victory against the Richmond Kickers at Al Lang Stadium that saw the Rowdies edge closer to the playoff positions in the Eastern Conference with their third consecutive victory.
“We’ve worked super hard for it,” said Gorskie. “We’re sticking to what we’re doing and sticking to what we believe in. We have a super team with a lot of consistency right now and we really believe in the way we play. Everything is going the way we want it, but we just have to continue to grind it out.”
Having given themselves a major boost in the race for the playoffs on Tuesday night with victory on the road against Nashville SC, the Rowdies came out flying against a Kickers side that had already been eliminated from playoff contention. Georgi Hristov had the ball in the net in the sixth minute, only for the offside flag to be raised on Jaime Chavez as he missed his finish at the near post from Afrim Taku’s cross from the right, and the assistant referee’s flag again denied the Rowdies as Chavez broke in behind the Richmond defense in the 25th minute as he tried to get onto the end of a through-ball by Kwadwo Poku.
When the Rowdies weren’t being denied by the offside flag, they were unable to find the range with their best chances of the first half, two of which fell to Poku. The former New York City FC midfielder had a stellar performance overall but was unable to finish on a breakaway in the 30th minute as Kickers goalkeeper Brandon Barnes met him at the top of the penalty area and then shot just wide of the left post five minutes later.
While the chances weren’t falling for his players, however, the halftime message from Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins was that their persistence would pay off.
“It was one of the best first-half performances I’ve seen in my time with the Rowdies, apart from the final finish,” Collins said. “We had two goals ruled out, rightly or wrongly, and we had other opportunities. I thought Poku looked like the best player in the league. I wanted more of that and they gave me that and probably a little bit more.”
Gorskie’s finish was followed by Chavez’s first for Tampa Bay eight minutes later as a turnover by the Kickers in their own half opened a lane for a simple pass by Taku to play him in for a finish to the left post. Junior Flemmings wrapped up the victory in stoppage time with a fine individual move and low finish to the right corner of the net.
The victory moved the Rowdies up to 10th place in the Eastern Conference and just a point back of Ottawa Fury FC in the final playoff place in the standings as only Bethlehem Steel FC of the sides Tampa Bay is battling for a postseason berth also took victory on Saturday night. But although a return to the playoffs is now closer than it has been for a while for Tampa Bay, Collins said he isn’t looking at the scoreboard for anyone except for his own side.
“We’ve been in such a poor position for a variety of reasons that I’ve not bothered with anybody but ourselves,” said Collins. “Without us winning, it’s not we’re in the playoffs and if other teams’ results go for us, we can stay in. We need to win to get in there. The players have done a fantastic job of taking it one game at a time.”
With another crucial game arriving on Wednesday night on the road at sixth-place Indy Eleven, the Rowdies are still aware there’s a lot of work left to claim a top-eight position.
If they get in, though, the side may be one that is poised for bigger things when the postseason arrives.
“The confidence is high,” said Gorskie. “At the end of the day, in a playoff structure, it’s about whoever is hottest going into the playoff. We’re just going to focus on the next game, keep building on what we need to get better at and we won’t worry about the rest of the table.”