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Rowdies blank Birmingham, will host Louisville in conference final

Mark Parker

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The Tampa Bay Rowdies continued their defense of the Eastern Conference title Saturday night, shutting out the Birmingham Legion FC 1-0 in the USL Championship’s conference semifinals.

The match took place before a raucous crowd of 5,949 at Al Lang Stadium, which wa loud and energized before the opening kickoff. The match was also televised live on ESPN +. The home team seemed to feed off the crowd’s intensity and nearly scored a goal in the opening minutes. Midfielder Yann Ekra almost found the back of Birmingham’s net in just the fourth minute of action, with Legion goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel narrowly blocking the shot.

Birmingham goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel saves a Rowdies shot-on-goal.

The rest of the first half was a defensive battle, with neither team receiving many good looks at the goal, although Tampa Bay held a 5-4 shot advantage at halftime. Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins kept his faith in the team’s starters and decided against making any roster changes through the first hour, saying after the game he was patient in case the match went to overtime. The teams headed to the locker room tied 0-0, and Collins asked Ekra to give a little more during the break.

“I asked Yann for 10% more at halftime because we think so highly of him,” said Collins.

In the 57th minute, Ekra delivered with some help from teammate Conner Antley.

Tampa Bay’s Sebastian Guenzatti and Laurence Wyke moved the ball across midfield, where Ekra found Antley on the right wing. Antley made a drive towards the box before deftly passing the ball back to Ekra. The midfielder trapped the cross in one touch and drove in a low shot. All Van Oekel could do was watch the ball hit the net, and Al Lang exploded into a sea of screams, Rowdies flags, and green and gold smoke.

“What a player,” said Collins of Ekra. “He and Conner combined so well for the goal. It was a goal worthy to win the game.”

While the score was only 1-0, the Rowdies were well in control and the outcome was never much in doubt. Birmingham did give the crowd one reason to collectively hold its breath in the 73rd minute when Alex Crognale produced a soft header off a corner kick that goalie Evan Louro easily stopped. The header marked just two second-half shots on goal for the Legion, and the Rowdies finished the match with a 10-6 shot advantage.

“Everyone played their role tonight,” said Collins. “We ended up with a 1-nil win, and it was well deserved against a really tough side.”

On Nov. 20, Tampa Bay faces Louisville City FC,, who narrowly defeated Charlotte 1-0 on an 89th-minute penalty kick in the other semifinal. The teams will meet for the Eastern Conference Final for the second consecutive postseason, although last year’s match took place in Louisville. The Rowdies won that match 2-1 and hope another boisterous home crowd will help propel them to the USL Championship.

“We’re happy to be at this stage; we’re happy to have the game at our stadium,” said Collins. “We’ll prepare like we have for every team.”

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