The Tampa Bay Rowdies overcame a physical, scoreless first half to advance in the USL Championship playoffs Saturday night, behind the play of their captain and an unlikely hero.
A 3-1 victory over in-state rival Miami FC at Al Lang Stadium began with a defensive struggle and some controversial officiating. Just before the half, the home crowd erupted after referees failed to call two potential red cards on Miami tackles.
Following the match, Coach Neill Collins said the team tweaked its approach before halftime. He also asked his players to remain positive and keep pushing coming out of the break. The adjustments and encouragement quickly paid dividends, as Sebastian Guenzatti, the club’s captain, put the Rowdies on the board five minutes after play resumed.
“I thought from the first minute in the second half we played very well and controlled the game,” said Collins. “I think the boys, the players tonight, should take so much credit for the way they handled a really difficult team.”
In the 50th minute, Rowdies midfielder Leo Fernandes dodged a pressing Miami defender to get a shot on the net. Goalkeeper Jake McGuire deflected the ball wide, and Guenzatti jumped on the rebound.
The franchise’s all-time leading scorer then beat a defender to the post and sank his first of two goals as he slid across the turf.
“Miami always comes here and gives us a tough time,” said Guenzatti. “And we like games like that. We like games that we can get stuck in, and everybody is willing to sacrifice for each other.”
Miami quickly quieted the crowd at Al Lang, however, as a Tampa Bay miscue allowed the visitors to tie the match a few minutes later. Miami’s Joaquin Rivas stole the ball from defensemen Lawrence Wyke and fired a shot that keeper Phil Breno partially blocked. Despite his best efforts, the ball found the back of the net.
The goal that broke the tie and propelled the Rowdies to the conference semifinals came from an unlikely source. Nicky Law, a 34-year-old midfielder, joined the club after a midseason trade with the Indy Eleven.
Law only scored once in 12 appearances with Tampa Bay but impressed Collins enough during the last four or five matches to earn his fifth start with the team in the opening round of the playoffs. The addition paid off, as Law fired a laser from long-range to win the match.
“This is obviously satisfying,” said Collins. “For him to pull out one like that tonight was special.”
Guenzatti initiated the sequence after he chipped a ball away from the Miami endline in the 58th minute and passed it to midfielder Dayonn Harris, who quickly sent a sharp cross to Law. Without hesitation, the newcomer launched a rocket well outside the 18-yard box.
All Mcguire could do was watch as the ball sped into the net and the crowd at Al Lang let out a deafening roar.
“It came at me quite quick,” explained Law. “So, it kind of made my mind up quick that I really needed to hit the ball. It gave us a quick regain of the lead … so, I think it was an important goal, as well.”
With momentum on Tampa Bay’s side, Guenzatti iced the game for the Rowdies by notching his fifth goal in four matches in the 70th minute. Harris sent a dangerous short corner kick into a crowd positioned outside Miami’s net, which the captain deftly turned and shot across the goal and past a diving McGuire.
“The team showed character and experience, and we put the game away,” said Guenzatti.
The Rowdies earned the 3-1 victory to begin their championship chase against a Miami squad that won 10 of 15 on the road. Tampa Bay only dropped two matches at Al Lang during the regular season, though one came against Saturday night’s opponent.
During the post-game press conference, Collins said it was still too early to identify a key aspect he would take from the win and apply to the next round. However, he credited the team’s starters and backups for their ability to overcome adversity.
“They know this is the time of year they have to stand up,” said Collins. “And I thought we did that.”
As the Eastern Conference’s third seed, the Rowdies were only guaranteed one home match during the playoffs. The team now travels to face Memphis 901 FC in the semifinal Saturday, Oct. 29. Fans can watch the broadcast on ESPN +.