How Good Are The Rowdies?
A tough assignment
I don’t know about you, but I’m still not over being mad about last weekend. I had hoped that my beloved Chicago Bears[efn_note]I first lived in the US in Chicago in that magical 1985 season and I’m still living off the nostalgia.[/efn_note] might make me feel a bit better with a surprise win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, but no, they got royally shafted by some appalling refereeing. Which just made things worse. So I’m still fuming. The thing is, I’m not really mad about the Riverhounds getting COVID. It happens. I’m not mad about them potentially getting it at a Halloween party. Life has to go on. I’m mad that we didn’t find out until Saturday. When I first saw the notification pop up on my phone, I thought it had to be some Twitter troll making a joke. But no, it was real. I’m mad that all that effort by the team to get a home playoff game was thrown on the trash heap. I’m mad that all those ticket sales were for naught. I’m mad that after finally getting meaningful local media coverage we get no game. I’m mad for all those Riverhounds fans who found out on the trip down here and had to turn around. I’m mad about how it might affect the team mentally. And I’m mad that our chances of a home playoff game this season just got much weaker.
OK, rant over.
But in order to get that home playoff game a few things have to happen. First, we have to beat the Tampa Bay Rowdies in Tampa. Then either the Charlotte Independence has to beat Louisville City, in which case Charlotte has to come here, or we beat Louisville City the following week and then host the Championship game.
Not going to be easy. After the upsets last week over in the Western Conference, the top four seeds are all in the East. It’s not even close: Charlotte in 4th got 59 regular season points and Orange County and San Antonio in the West managed only 52.
And that brings us to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. To be honest, the Championship should now be Tampa’s to lose. They ended the season with 71 points, best in the league, an impressive 2.09 PPG. And they are playing at home, of course, where they went 13-2-1, scoring 37 and allowing only 10. Not that they were bad on the road: they were 10-5-1 and 18-13 in scoring. Against playoff teams at home they were 7-1-0 (but 0-5-1 away).
Those seem like some fearsome numbers. But of those 7 home wins against playoff teams, four were in the first four weeks of the season when the league gifted them a month-long home stretch (followed by a relatively relaxing trip to New York Red Bulls II). I’ll give you precisely zero guesses as to where the USL headquarters are located. Also, Tampa had a winning record against only two playoff teams – the Phoenix Rising and Oakland Roots, both of which it played just once, and at home. Against Pittsburgh they were 1-2-1 and against both Charlotte and Miami they were 2-2-0.
Furthermore, although they allowed fewer goals than any other team (they had a 8-game clean sheet streak), they were outscored by Phoenix, El Paso and Louisville. And the Legion scored only 4 fewer. And during the final stretch after that long stretch of clean sheets they weren’t overly frightening, although they may have been coasting at that point.
As for last week’s game against FC Tulsa, they were up against the weakest qualifier in the East and won 6-2. That sounds horrifying, but… At half time they were leading just 1-0 courtesy of a cross that Tulsa keeper Austin Wormell deflected right into the legs of Sebastian Guenzatti. Just a minute into the second half Tulsa’s Kembo Kibato scored an own goal on a play that well have been offside. The teams then traded goals to make it 3-1. But then Tulsa substitute Eric Bird managed to earn two yellow cards in just 19 minutes and the result was never really in doubt. Even so, Tampa didn’t score again until the 89th minute and even allowed Tulsa to score again in stoppage time. And one of the Rowdies’ own 2 stoppage time goals was a Wormell save that again deflected to a Tampa striker, this time, Lucky Mkosana. It was a wild game, and the scoreline may have flattered Tampa a bit. They did score 6 once during the regular season – against New York, which doesn’t mean much.
All that being said, the aforementioned Sebastian Guenzatti has to be watched. His 21 regular season goals were second only to Hadji Barry’s 25. The next nearest scorer on the squad is Steevan Dos Santos on 10. This season was Guenzatti’s best ever, his previous best being 18 (2019).
He’s been with the Rowdies ever since they joined the USL Championship in 2017. In that time they have failed to make the playoffs just once (2018), but reached the final only once. That was last year and the game was never played. Prior to joining the USL, the team had missed the NASL playoffs 4 straight years.
At the other end of the field, goalkeeper Evan Louro led the league with 14 clean sheets, including that 8-game stretch. However, he was only tied for 22nd with 58 (1.81 per game), which is an indication that the defense in front of him has proven hard to penetrate. On the upside, if you can get past them, Louro is rather out of practice. In contrast, Matt van Oekel is tied for 3rd in clean sheets (9) and 8th in saves (80, 2.50 per game).
So: winning at AL Lang Stadium is a difficult proposition. But not impossible. Obviously, the Legion were unable to get it done in the playoffs last season, losing 4-2. The Three Sparks did win there 1-0 in 2019 though. Only two teams managed that feat this season. One, surprisingly, was Hartford Athletic. The other was the Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
And there is food for thought.