It all started in Puerto Rico.
The date was June 9 and the Rowdies had just lost 2-0 to the Islanders, their fifth loss in the first 11 games of the season. But just like last season, Tampa Bay has gotten warm as the summer months have heated up.
Last year, the team went unbeaten in eight of nine matches from June 29 through August 13. And this summer has already seen more of the same. The Rowdies have won five of their last six matches, moving to within two points of the top spot in the table. And Tampa Bay has shown a flair for the dramatic in changing its fortunes.
In their next match, the Rowdies found themselves down to Minnesota on the road less than 10 minutes into the match. But forward Tsuyoshi Yoshitake evened things up just before halftime and midfielder Keith Savage scored from 20 yards out in the 87th minute to hand the Stars their first loss at home this season.
Tampa Bay took it a step further the following week at home against San Antonio, who had already posted two victories against the Rowdies in its inaugural season. After falling behind by a goal in the first half and then again in the second half, Tampa Bay saved its best for the final moments in wet conditions at Al Lang Stadium. Midfielder Luke Mulholland tied the match with a perfectly placed free kick in the left corner of the net in the 88th minute past Scorpions goalkeeper Daryl Sattler. Moments later, Yoshitake completed the comeback in second half injury time, scoring his second goal of the game to snap the Scorpions' nine-game unbeaten streak.
“The character of this team has shown all season, not just tonight,” said Rowdies head coach Ricky Hill after the match. “The last time I experienced something like this I was on the field playing in the Cup final for Luton Town against Arsenal at Wembley. We were 2-1 down and going nowhere at the time and we managed to score the third one in injury time, and we lifted the Cup, so it’s the same kind of feeling, same kind of adrenaline rush when you get that break and I think the players earned that tonight.”
The following week at home against Minnesota on June 30, Tampa Bay scored the opening goal for the first time in nearly a month when forward Mike Ambersley headed home a pass from Mulholland in the 55th minute. Yoshitake added an insurance goal in the 88th minute, his team-leading fifth of the year, after a great through ball from Savage and the Rowdies captured their third straight victory.
The Rowdies welcomed their biggest crowd ever to Al Lang for the annual Fourth of July showdown with the Strikers, but once again Tampa Bay fell behind as Ft. Lauderdale jumped ahead in the 19th minute. The Rowdies were once again resilient, though, as Ambersley scored for the second straight game to tie the match in the 30th minute. Yoshitake continued his hot streak with his fifth goal in four games, blasting a volley from just outside the 18-yard box off the left post for the game-winner in the 67th minute. Antoniuk put the game away in the 85th minute with his fifth goal of the season and the win streak stood at four.
After a hard fought 2-1 loss at Minnesota on July 12, the Rowdies had a short turnaround for an afternoon matinee this past Sunday at FC Edmonton in rainy weather on a slick turf. Tampa Bay was forced to deal with another type of adversity in the opening 45 minutes when Yoshitake was sent off with a red card in the 33rd minute. Despite playing a man down for more than 56 minutes, Tampa Bay continued to press for a goal and it paid off in the final minutes. Mulholland notched the game-winner after a cross from Ambersley with a one-timer in the bottom corner of the net in the 89th minute, sending home a stunned crowd in Edmonton.
Hill said that the players continued to work hard early in the season and he was confident the results would start to show.
“The players have always shown their dedication and hard work. If there is one thing, I think we are showing a slightly better understanding and execution at the times that matter,” said Hill. “We are executing far better than what we have done in the past, in critical moments where it is necessary to produce those moments of quality. Sometimes you just need to pause for that second, relax and be critical in your execution, and that has been the case because we have been down in most of the games that we have won.”
A TALE OF TWO SEASONS
|Category||First 11 Games||Last 6 Games|
|Goals Per Game||1.0||2.0|
|Goals Allowed Per Game||1.4||1.0|