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Rowdies headed to championship after thrilling comeback victory

Mark Parker

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Steevan Dos Santos, center, is mobbed by teammates after scoring the game-winning goal in extra minutes. Photo by Mark Parker.

Louisville City was in control for all but nine minutes of Saturday night’s USL Eastern Conference title match. Down two goals to none, it appeared as if a second-straight championship would elude the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Then came the Mkosana Miracle.

Lucky Mkosana, one of the best substitutes in the USL Championship League, pulled off a feat that will go down in Rowdies lore. Mkosana scored two goals in the final minutes, including one on the final possession with just seconds left on the clock that sent the 7,120 fans inside Al Lang Stadium into an absolute frenzy, and the match into overtime. A Steevan Dos Santos goal in extra minutes completed the improbable comeback rally, and an overjoyed Rowdies squad walked off the pitch with a 3-2 victory.

“I think they’re a great team,” said Head Coach Neill Collins after the match. “They proved they’re a great team. Great teams come back from 2-nil.”

Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro lept behind the barrier to celebrate with a fan after a thrilling comeback victory. Photo by Mark Parker.

The night did not begin great. Just 10 minutes into the match, Louisville’s Oscar Jiminez placed a free kick into the box that Brian Ownby easily slipped by Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro. Things got worse in the 23rd minute, as Rowdies defender Forrest Lasso accidentally sent the ball past a diving Louro and into his own net while clearing a low cross by Louisville’s Paolo Del Piccolo.

Louisville had a 2-0 lead just 23-minutes into the first half, and the energy from inside Al Lang seemed to get sucked out of the stadium and into the adjacent Tampa Bay.

The Rowdies got their first look at the goal 30-minutes into the match, although Louisville goalkeeper Chris Hubbard stopped midfielder Lewis Hilton’s free kick.

Collins said he reminded the team that he believes in their greatness at the break, and both the Rowdies and the crowd’s intensity seemed to pick back up in the second half.

“Just get the next goal,” said Collins of his thought process heading back onto the pitch after halftime.

Tampa Bay’s defense would stymie the Louisville offense in the second half. However, that next goal would evade the Rowdies until the 83rd minute. Down 2-nil with nine minutes left to play in regulation, the Rowdies began to play like their championship lives were on the line.

Hubbard and his teammates successfully blocked several Tampa Bay shots inside Louisville’s box until the ball eventually found its way back to Mkosana, who immediately kicked a low strike into the bottom right corner to bring the Rowdies within a goal of tying that match.

“Once we got that first goal, then the belief starts through the stadium,” said Collins. “We just took it from there.”

With the clock ticking down, Mkosana found a way to tie the game with just seconds remaining in regulation. Rowdies defender Aaron Guillen found Lasso on the left edge of Louisville’s net in the six-yard area. With the ball in the air, Lasso sent a header that narrowly made it past several Louisville defenders and somehow found a waiting Mkosana. Mkosana then found the net on a header of his own for what is now being called the Mkosana Miracle.

The equalizer sent the crowd at Al Lang into hysterics over what they had witnessed, and Mkosana’s teammates mobbed and piled onto their super substitute. The Rowdies came into extra minutes with the crowd and momentum firmly behind them.

“The crowd fed off the team, and the team fed off the crowd,” said Collins.

Riding the wave of momentum, the Rowdies controlled the extra time and scored the go-ahead goal in the 102nd minute. Midfielder Laurence Wykes sent a perfectly placed cross across Louisville’s goal to a waiting Dos Santos.

Dos Santos was then able to head the ball past Hubbard and into the net.

With the 2020 final canceled due to Covid, Tampa Bay now has a second chance to win the USL championship in front of its home crowd. The Rowdies will face the Orange County FC Sunday, Nov. 28, at Al Lang Stadium – televised live on ESPN. The match begins at 8 p.m., and tickets can be purchased here.

Lucky Mkosana celebrates with his Rowdies teammates following an improbably victory to claim the USL Eastern Conference title. Photo: Lucky Mkosana, Twitter.

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