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Robert Hernandez big enough in key moment for Rowdies

in Sports/The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

He is small, but he is fast.

On the other hand, so is a dagger.

Robert Hernandez, all 5-5 and 145 pounds of him, spurted in between two defenders from the Lauderdale Strikers and tapped in the only goal of the night in the 55th minute, leading the Tampa Bay Rowdies to a 1-0 victory against their cross-state rivals.

As it turned out, one goal was plenty as keeper Matt Pickens recorded his second consecutive shutout in front of a soggy but enthusiastic crowd of 6,851. In their last 11 home games against Fort Lauderdale, Tampa Bay is 9-1-1.

“It was probably the most complete game we’ve played,” said coach Thomas Rongren. “Let’s be honest. We should have been up 3-0 at halftime. But we weren’t. We did persevere.”

Much of that was because of Hernandez, who scored his first goal as a Rowdie by being in the right place at the right time. Forward Maicon Santos had taken a shot, and the ball bounded off goalkeeper David Meves, and caromed to a wide-open Hernandez.

“(Hernandez) can stretch defenses because of his dribble-penetration and speed,” Rongen said. “As a young player, he’s very gifted. There’s certain things I can’t teach, and his speed is sprinters speed. For him to get a goal was very cool. He’s not big, but he’s fast.”

“A goal is a goal,” Hernandez said, shrugging off the ease of the tap-in.

For the Rowdies, scoring was a welcome sight. The Rowdies had several runs just before the half, but we unable to finish. Rongen said he is not concerned that will be a problem for his team.

“No, I’m not,” he said. “I really am not. We have enough guys on this team who have proven in the past that they can finish. We’re going to have a breakout game sooner or later. Not making excuses, but we haven’t been able to play a starting 11 two games in a row. We’re not an expansion team, but we might as well be with 21 new players. It’s all about chemistry.”

Oh, defensively, the Rowdies are loaded with chemistry. They have allowed on six goals in seven games this year, and only one in the last three games, which Pickens has started. Pickens has played well, but he’s the first to tell you that he’s only a piece. The starting defense of the Rowdies has meshed well.

“We’re playing super, super well, collectively, on the defensive side of the ball,” Pickens said. “We’re hard to break down, we know each other’s tendencies and we keep our lines tight. We limit their chances, and when you do that, you keep shutouts. I’m just doing my part, but everyone is holding up to their responsibilities on the field. That’s huge.”

The victory puts the Rowdies in second place in the NASL Spring Season standings, three points behind the New York Cosmos with three games to go.

“It wasn’t just another game, because I knew the importance of this game in terms of the standings, in terms of being at home and in terms of knowing that it would be in front of a great crowd,” Rowdies Head Coach Thomas Rongen said. “A win for us, to stay in the hunt with three games left, was the most important thing.”

The Rowdies have next week off from NASL play, with their next match coming in the U.S. Open Cup on May 27, either at home vs. West Virginia or on the road vs. Pittsburgh. The next home game will be against Edmonton on June 6.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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