MEMPHIS, Tenn. (March 10, 2019) — The Tampa Bay Rowdies went into the belly of the beast Saturday night, serving as the foil in Memphis 901 FC’s inaugural match in front of a raucous crowd at AutoZone Park.
The fans were lively but will have to wait a little bit longer to see their team pick up its first points after the Rowdies earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory in their first match of the season.
Here’s three takeaways from the win…
1. A win is a win
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Rowdies have had more than a few difficulties winning away from home in the last few years. But for the second-consecutive season, Tampa Bay picked up a road win on the first day of the season.
Last year, the Rowdies opened the year with an impressive 3-0 win over the road against North Carolina FC. Tampa Bay went on to post a 4-10-3 (W-L-D) record away from home in 2018. For that reason, no one should suggest that last night’s win means the end of the Rowdies road woes, but maybe how they won can foreshadow more success to come.
Saturday night’s match was kind of ugly. There were as many yellow cards (four) as shots on target and there probably should have been a few more cautions. While it wasn’t a clinical dismantling by the Rowdies offensive unit, it was a gritty team performance that didn’t give the hosts an inch they didn’t earn. That mindset — should it continue — could bode well for the year ahead.
Tampa Bay stayed nice and compact defensively and though Memphis took more shots (eight compared to the Rowdies seven) and had more possession (58 percent), Rowdies goalkeeper John McCarthy was required to make just one save to keep the clean sheet.
Five of Memphis’ eight shots came from outside the box as Tampa Bay kept things tight and forced the ball out of dangerous areas.
As the match wore on, Memphis’ frustration boiled to the surface as the Rowdies drew foul after foul and controlled the tempo of the match. That grittiness will make the Rowdies a pain to play against at best and competitive everywhere at worst.
The Rowdies were the lone road team to pick up a win in the Eastern Conference on Saturday, with home teams going 5-1-1.
It wasn’t pretty, but you can’t deny that it got the job done.
2. Debuts galore
Of the 13 players to step on the field for the Rowdies on Saturday night, eight had never done it before as Tampa Bay’s revamped roster was put the test for the first time.
John McCarthy, Caleb Richards, Shawn Barry, Yann Ekra, Zach Steinberger and Juan Tejada all started the match, plus Antoine Hoppenot and Jordan Doherty entering the match off the bench.
Tejada’s inclusion in the starting XI was perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, but he more than proved his worth in his professional debut. He drew the penalty that led to the Rowdies opening goal.
“It was well documented how well (Tejada) did in preseason,” Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins said. “As we looked to this week, we had great options at the front, but with Juan’s energy and how well he’s looked in training, he deserved the start. I think the game suited him and he paid dividends early on.”
Richards was another surprise in the lineup, not by his inclusion, but by where he played. Richards, on loan from Norwich City FC, is primarily a left back or left wing back, but played the full 90 minutes as the left-sided center back and contributed to the clean sheet.
Doherty, on loan from Sheffield United FC, became the first played born in the year 2000 to represent the Rowdies in a competitive match when he came in off the bench in the 89th minute.
3. Big Pape
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Pape Diakite put in a monster shift on opening night, hopefully setting the tone for 2019 with a dominant performance at the heart of the Rowdies defense.
Diakite was the the last defender signed, but always seemed locked into the starting lineup for Saturday night’s match. Playing at the center of a back three, flanked by Tarek Morad and Caleb Richards, Diakite cleaned up just about every loose ball that made it to the Rowdies 18-yard box.
His stats for the match show an astonishing 13 clearances on the night. Memphis, as a team, recorded six.