The Rowdies fought until the last whistle, spurred on by a sellout crowd packed inside Al Lang Stadium, but three first-half goals by Orange County SC proved to be insurmountable as Tampa Bay fell 3-1 in the USL Championship final.
The Rowdies came into Sunday night’s final favored over the visiting Orange County SC but were without a key cog – keeper Evan Louro. Louro injured his right knee celebrating a thrilling comeback victory over Louisville FC a week ago, and was questionable to play heading into the match. Just before kick-off, Louro was seen in crutches and a heavy brace while receiving the USL’s goalkeeper of the year award, making it clear the Rowdies would be without the best keeper in the league.
“Highly unlucky to have that happen,” said Rowdies coach Neill Collins. “I don’t think Raiko was necessarily at fault, but when you have a keeper that’s been as good as Evan’s been all year, you’d obviously like him to have the opportunity to play in the final.”
Raiko Arozarena, younger brother of Tampa Bay Rays outfielder (and Rookie of the Year) Randy Arozarena, took Louro’s place in the net. For the first 15 minutes or so of game time, it looked as if the loss of Louro may not factor much into the match. The Rowdies controlled the pace and were able to keep the ball on Orange County’s side of the pitch early on. They also still had star defender Forrest Lasso – who won his second straight Defender of the Year award Friday – patrolling in front of Arozarena.
After several unsuccessful shots on Orange County’s net, the Rowdies were awarded a 19th-minute penalty kick. Tampa Bay forward Sebastian Guenzatti kicked a hard line drive towards Orange County’s keeper, Patrick Rakovsky, and the 7,521 fans inside Al Lang let out a collective groan as Rakovsky made the diving save.
From there, the momentum seemed to turn in Orange County’s favor, and even though the visitors did not have many shots on the Rowdies net – they made them count.
Orange County forward Ronaldo Damus began the scoring in the 25th minute, intercepting an uncharacteristically bad pass by Tampa Bay defender Jordan Scarlett in the penalty area and then slipping the ball past Arozarena. In the 38th minute, Damus took a pass from teammate Eric Calvillo and found the net to make the match 2-0.
In the 45th minute, Finn Kuningas’s free-kick would ricochet off of Arozarena’s outstretched hand to give the visitors a 3-0 lead at the half.
“Who prepares you for being down 3-nil at halftime in a Cup final?” asked Rowdies coach Neill Collins after the game. “Highly unusual.”
With last weekend’s 2-nil comeback fresh in the minds of the Rowdies and their fans, the intensity level remained high as the teams took the field after the break. After several narrow misses that would keep the crowd at Al Lang on their feet, Tampa Bay would finally break through in the 57th minute.
Midfielder Leo Fernandes found the ball at the top of Orange County’s box, and his line-drive kick made it past Rakovsky for the Rowdies’ first, and ultimately only, goal.
“We wanted to get a goal,” said Collins. “We got the goal at a great time. We knocked the door down; the boys put in so much energy.”
Collins inserted super substitute Lucky Mksona into the match in the 61st minute. Al Lang then erupted when the video board played the “Mksona Miracle” that propelled the Rowdies from down 2-0 to victory in the closing moments of the Eastern Conference Final Nov. 20. The last 39 minutes of regulation were a defensive battle, however, as neither team would again find the net.
Collins said the night started as well as any match at home this season, but mistakes would ultimately cost the team a title.
“Unfortunately, there’s not much I can say after nights like this,” Collins said. “My heart breaks for them.”
After the final whistle, several visibly upset Rowdies stayed on the field, physically and emotionally drained. They watched as Orange County danced and accepted their trophy, while confetti rained down across the home field. Once they collected themselves, they put on one last show for the Tampa Bay faithful.
Before walking into the locker room and amid a gut-wrenching loss, the Rowdies picked their heads up and made their way to the loyal fans who stayed behind long after the match was over. They signed autographs, took selfies, and Lasso gave some young fans his shin guards and sweatbands.
After a Covid outbreak denied Tampa Bay the chance to play for the title in front of a home crowd last year, Sunday night’s match allowed Rowdies fans and Al Lang Stadium a night in the national spotlight. For the first time in USL Championship history, the match was broadcast nationally on ESPN and ESPN Deportes.
Although the match did not turn out the way Rowdies fans had hoped, the team still found a way to make sure a loyal fanbase had a memorable night and promised to find a way back next year.
“There will be a few regrets from a couple of players, I’m sure,” said Collins. “But they’ve done this club so proud.
“I’m proud to be coaching them.”