ST. PETERSBURG — With time winding down, it appeared the group of fans the Rowdies accommodated and spread across Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night would see their team fall.
Tampa Bay trailed Atlanta United 2 for the opening 60 minutes despite fielding a one-man advantage for most of the game. But Leo Fernandes saved the Rowdies from a draw, scoring on a rebound off a free kick in the 87th minute. From there, the Rowdies clung to their lead for a 2-1 victory in the first game in four months for both teams.
“First couple of games back is a huge leveler, no matter (if you’re a) team at the top, team at the bottom, it’s the same,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “It’s who adjusts better, and I don’t think we adjusted well in the first half. But credit to the boys for finding a way to win today.”
Tampa Bay (2-0) has struggled against Atlanta in the past. The Rowdies were 1-3 against the club before Saturday’s key victory over one of their Group H opponents in the United Soccer League Championship. The teams face each another three more times this season.
That the Rowdies even had a crowd of 140 fans to cheer them on, occasionally boo referees, and occupy the stands in green and gold was notable. The last time a Florida professional sports team hosted fans for a game in its home stadium was exactly four months ago, March 11, when the NBA’s Miami Heat hosted the Charlotte Hornets — the same night Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. That night effectively began the shutdown of the sports world, until Saturday for the USL Championship, which restarted with six games across the league.
“We haven’t played in so long,” said Fernandes, who was given a yellow card after his goal. “To play such a tough first game and to get to three points in the last part of the 90 minutes, it’s a great feeling.”
The Rowdies had an opportunity to take an early lead on a free kick just outside the box in the seventh minute. Midfielder Lewis Hilton drew a foul from Atlanta′s Amir Basht, who was given a red card for violent conduct. Hilton’s free kick sailed above the crossbar, but the red card gave Tampa Bay a man advantage the rest of the way.
Just a few minutes after the card, Atlanta overcame its one-man deficit and scored on a breakaway goal by forward Jackson Conway in the 11th minute. Conway’s goal came from outside the box and over the outstretched hands of goalkeeper Evan Louro.
That ended up being the only ball that came Louro’s way all night as Atlanta took three shots, only one of which was on target.
The Rowdies won the possession battle by a wide margin (70-30) and took 22 shots to their opponent’s five.
In the 61st minute, Lucky Mkosana found the net to tie it for Tampa Bay. Juan Tejada was credited with the assist on the goal as Mkosana wedged the ball in past goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard. The Rowdies then controlled the remainder of the game, consistently keeping the ball near Atlanta′s goal.
That had been the case for much of the match, but the Rowdies had found little success. Hilton was able to redeem his earlier errant free kick when Fernandes rebounded a missed header by Forrest Lasso and scored the winner.
“I just thought to myself, I gotta get it in the box,” Fernandes said. “Because whenever you’re in the box, anything can happen. And it fell to my foot, and I was just hoping that no one blocked it, and it went right in.”
Fernandes and Collins were pleased with the fervent fans in attendance, but not all agreed on the season’s resumption, including fans in the stands.
Before the match, Francis Novoa, the game-day operations director for the Ralph’s Mob Rowdies fan club, worried about Saturday’s game and the rest of the season. His said his apprehension stemmed from the nature of a soccer’s environment: outdoors and chanting and dancing in close proximity, even with a mask on.
“I’ve been kind of torn because I want the team to play,” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t want them to play because I want everybody to be safe.”
Mike Pendelton, chief financial officer of Ralph’s Mob, decided that attending the game, with the precautions the team had in place, was safe enough for himself and his wife and son. He said the capacity — 1 percent in a 7,227-seat stadium — comforted him.
He emphasized the precautions and care put into making the game happen with fans in the stands, saying it wasn’t a rush to do so.
“I think a lot of people will be like, ‘Look at this careless sports team and careless fans who just want to get into the game,‘ ” Pendelton said. “And we absolutely want to support the guys, but I can’t tell you how much care and thought it was. It wasn’t a callous decision.”