Saturday night’s match between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Charlotte Independence was billed as a clash between Eastern Conference heavyweights and a potential playoff preview. The match lived up to its potential, with the Rowdies squeaking out a 1-0 win in an intense match at Al Lang Stadium in front of 7,786 fans.
The win moved Tampa Bay (12-8-7 (W-T-L), 44 points) into fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The top four seeds will earn a first-round home game in the playoffs next month.
Hunter Gorskie, in his home debut for the Rowdies, scored the only goal in the 33rd minute. Marcel Schäfer provided the assist with a corner kick.
“That was absolutely huge,” Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell said. “We spoke about the importance of these three points before (the game.) We spoke about giving the people of St. Pete and Tampa and the surrounding area something to celebrate because it’s been an extremely stressful couple of weeks for a lot of people.”
It wasn’t Tampa Bay’s best performance of the season, with Charlotte (13-9-7, 48 points) knocking on the door several times, including having two potential goals called off for offside.
The Rowdies had 13 shots on the night, but only two were on target compared to four shots on target for the Independence. Charlotte had the lions’ share of possession and completed more passes, but Tampa Bay goalkeeper Matt Pickens made four saves to earn his eighth clean sheet of the season and first since August 5.
The match started slowly, but came to an early boil in the 22nd minute when the Rowdies were seemingly awarded a penalty kick after Alex Morrell was dragged down on the edge of the box, only for the decision to be changed to an indirect free kick from inside the box. Tampa Bay’s initial shot was blocked and the follow-up was sent over the crossbar.
In the 32nd minute, Gorskie nearly scored off a corner kick, but it was cleared by a defender out for another corner. On the second attempt, Gorskie made it count with a shot that was stopped by Charlotte goalkeeper Cody Mizell, but Mizell was several yards deep into his own goal and the goal was given.
“It was a huge three points,” Gorskie said. “No matter what happened, we wanted to win after not playing for so long. We knew it was going to be tough because they’re a good team but we had to get it done. … I knew (the goal) was in. The goalkeeper was pretty far back in his own net and I had a good look at it, so I knew.”
Tampa Bay could’ve doubled its lead in the 57th minute when the Rowdies had a wild series of quick shots. Martin Paterson had his shot blocked, then Schäfer had a shot saved by a diving Mizell.
In the 61st minute, Charlotte’s Joel Johnson took a feed from Jorge Herrera and put the ball in the back of the net, but the goal was negated by the offside flag and Tampa Bay retained its 1-0 lead.
Eight minutes later, Charlotte executed a threatening counter attack that looked dangerous before Zac Portillos intervened with a perfectly-timed toe poke inside the Rowdies’ box to clear the ball.
In the 73rd minute, Charlotte scored again via Enzo Martinez only for the offside flag to deny a goal once more.
Tampa Bay had to hold on desperately as the second half advanced, but did it well enough to earn a huge win in the first of six matches in 20 days to close the regular season.
With the Rowdies winning and the three teams ahead of them in the standings all losing, Tampa Bay made up a lot of ground in the standings.
Charlotte remains in second place with 48 points. Charleston is in third with 47, but Tampa Bay leapfrogged Rochester into fourth place with 44 points. The Rhinos have 43. Crucially, the Rowdies have two games in hand on both Charlotte and Charleston and one game in hand over Rochester.