After playing to a scoreless stalemate through 90 minutes of action at AutoZone Park on Sunday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Memphis 901 FC packed plenty of drama into added time. Leo Fernandes sealed a 1-0 result for Tampa Bay from the penalty spot in the 9th minute of added time, four minutes after teammate Phil Breno saved a penalty and the Rowdies season.
The victory sends the Rowdies to the USL Championship Eastern Conference Final for the third straight season. They will face the East’s number one seed Louisville City FC on Saturday, November 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
“I think six months ago we lose that game, maybe even three months ago we lose that game,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “The players have really bonded together and found a spirit over the last two months. I’ve seen a different focus as they’ve gotten to this time of year.”
Sunday’s match was originally meant to be played on Saturday night but was delayed to Sunday due to weather conditions in Memphis. Once the match kicked off, the hosts took hold with an edge in possession and prevented the Rowdies from building much going forward.
Still, neither side could produce a shot on target in the first half.
“Tough game, typical playoff game on the road against a very good team,” said Fernandes. “They did well keeping possession. We were very good at staying compact and limiting their opportunities.”
The Rowdies made one change at halftime, inserting striker Steevan Dos Santos up top to help create more opportunities to play direct. Dos Santos had his moment in the 57th minute, holding off a defender and timing a strike that clipped in the inside of the near post to slip past keeper Trey Muse. However, referee Elton Garcia’s whistle negated the effort as he judged Dos Santos of inadvertently handling the ball as it came down in the box.
Tampa Bay held more of the ball in the second but still struggled to create more chances in the final third. Memphis earned the first attempt on target of the match in the 87th minute. After creating a turnover in Tampa Bay’s end of the field, midfielder Aaron Molloy ripped a strike from distance that was denied by a diving Breno.
As the match hit 90 minutes, only four minutes of added time was indicated by the fourth official. That all went out the wind in the third minute of added time, though. With Breno readying to clear the ball from Tampa Bay’s box, Memphis’ Philip Goodrum went to ground as he clattered into Jordan Scarlett just inside the top of the box. The whistle came immediately, giving Memphis a chance to pull ahead.
Molloy stepped up to the penalty spot to face off with Breno, his former teammate at USL League One side Forward Madison FC. Molloy fired his attempt with conviction, but Breno laid out to make the necessary stop.
“I know that was kind of (Molloy’s) sweet spot,” said Breno. “… It was maybe two minutes of down time from when the foul happened to when he took the kick. I knew there was too much time for him to think and I just knew he was gonna go with his bread and butter. I honestly just dove. I didn’t react to his shot, I just dove.”
The Rowdies responded to Breno’s heroics by defending the ensuing corner kick and swiftly moving the ball down the field. Dos Santos headed a ball into the path of Guenzatti in the box but the Rowdies captain was cut off and clipped down by a couple defenders. Waiting to snag the loose ball was Dayonn Harris, who pushed the ball past Muse before the keeper stuck a a late foot down to thwart Harris.
Fernandes then stepped up and converted, sending his strike to the right side goal while Muse dove the opposite direction.
“At that point I had no doubt in Leo,” said Collins. “With the season he’s had, I had no doubt he would put it in. I think our club, not just our players, but our club, earned that moment in a really tight game.”
TBR – Fernandes (Penalty), 90+9’
TBR: Breno; C. Antley, Wyke, Castellanos, Guillen; Hilton, Law, Dlagaard, LaCava, Fernandes, Guenzatti
MEM: Muse; Dodson, Graham-Smith, Buckmaster, Seagrist; Fernando, Molloy, Kissiedou, Paul, Kelly; Goodrum