ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (May 15, 2019) — The Tampa Bay Rowdies passed their first Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup test of the season Tuesday night, advancing to the Third Round with a 4-1 win over The Villages SC. The result means the Rowdies will visit OKC Energy FC in Norman, Oklahoma on May 29.
Here’s Three Things from the match…
1. Moving on
The Rowdies were heavy favorites heading into Tuesday night’s match, but crazy things happen in the Open Cup. Going into Tuesday night, Tampa Bay had been eliminated by a team playing in a lower division than it in three of the last four seasons. Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins selected a mixed lineup that was more than strong enough to ensure that wouldn’t happen in his first Open Cup match at the helm.
USL Championship teams almost had a perfect night, going 7-1 in matches against non-Championship teams, with only the Charlotte Independence falling victim to an upset. Charlotte lost to the amateur Florida Soccer Soldiers in penalty kicks. The Tulsa Roughnecks were eliminated by fellow Championside side Austin Bold FC.
The Rowdies never looked in danger of losing their match, but The Villages did show a few promising signs before Tampa Bay struck twice in three minutes just before halftime to put things away early.
“I’ve been on both ends of these Open Cup draws as an amateur player and as a pro,” Rowdies midfielder Zach Steinberger said. “It’s a never say die attitude and they have nothing to lose. Us, being the professional team, had to show a lot of maturity and a lot of poise. We dictated our identity of soccer on them.”
2. Successful rotation
While underestimating Open Cup opponents can be devastating, a break from league play did give Neill Collins a chance to rotate his squad and give meaningful minutes to a few players that needed them. Goalkeeper Chris Konopka and defender Ryan Felix both made their official Rowdies debuts in the match, while Kwadwo Poku made his first start.
Even with fresh faces in the lineup and some new partnerships on the field, Tampa Bay didn’t appear to miss a beat.
“Those guys have played preseason games and we’ve arranged friendlies for them to play in and you can see that they know what we’re trying to do,” Collins said. “They’re bought into the system and it just shows that we’ve got strength in depth and they’re ready to step in when the opportunity comes.”
That rotation allowed some of the key players from this season to take the night off entirely. Sebastian Guenzatti, Leo Fernandes, John McCarthy and Pape Diakite were not in uniform, giving them extra rest ahead of this weekend’s showdown with New York Red Bulls II.
Up 2-0 at halftime, the Rowdies went young in the second half, with academy products Robbie Soronellas and Jack Casey making their first team debuts off the bench. Both players played with the Rowdies in preseason but have had limited training opportunities with the first team due to commitments to high school and club soccer.
“I said when I got this job that we had to get the professional pathway in place as best we possibly could,” Collins said. “Those two lads have stuck out to us in terms of their ability and their attitude and they’ve earned that opportunity. In any European country, that would have been through the academy at the club. Here it’s a little different, but they got it just the same and we’re looking forward to them training with us this summer and getting more opportunities.”
3. Confidence boost
The Rowdies set a new Modern Era club record with an eleven match unbeaten streak in all competitions, a nice positive as the 2019 squad continues to grow together.
In addition to a thundering header from Mohamed Kone, the Rowdies also saw a couple of players get onto the scoresheet that should boost confidence around the squad. Steinberger had a goal and two assists that should kickstart his campaign. He scored in the Rowdies home opener on March 16 but hadn’t netted since. Brandon Allen also scored his second goal of the season and Leon Taylor came off the bench to score a late goal earned by his hard individual work.
The Rowdies also generally looked strong on attacking set pieces, which only bodes well for the weeks and months ahead.