BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Jun. 1, 2019) — The Tampa Bay Rowdies pulled off their fourth road win of the season Saturday night, downing Birmingham Legion FC 2-0. The win extended the Rowdies unbeaten run to 13 matches in USL Championship play.
Here’s Three Things from the match…
1. McCarthy Party
Rowdies goalkeeper John McCarthy has been stellar in net all season for the Rowdies, even in some nights required little to no work to keep a clean sheet. In wins over Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on March 16 and Swope Park Rangers last weekend, McCarthy stood in net all night without being required to make a single save.
Last night was not one of those nights.
It’s fair to say that Birmingham deserved a goal or two Saturday night but McCarthy answered the call on every occasion to pick up his ninth clean sheet in 13 matches this year. He made four outstanding saves to deny Birmingham.
First, he palmed a JJ Williams header wide of the net from six yards out as he crashed into the goalpost and fell into his own net in the 36th minute. The camera angle on the endline reveals that the ball was just a few inches away from the line.
Next, he was tasked with saving a penalty kick in the 50th after Caleb Richards was guilty of a foul just inside Tampa Bay’s 18-yard box.
No problem for McCarthy, who dove right to save the penalty. It was the first penalty kick the Rowdies have faced this season.
Two more saves in the 66th and 74th minutes helped the Rowdies see out a 2-0 win in style. It didn’t come close to match his season high of seven saves in a match (achieved vs. Louisville City FC in April) but it felt like one of his most outstanding performances of the year.
2. Some breathing room
Despite their midweek elimination from the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the Rowdies entered the weekend with a four-point gap over second-place Nashville SC. Nashville had the weekend off so that gap has been extended to seven points with an even number of matches played, but a new, familiar contender sits in second.
New York Red Bulls II beat the Bethlehem Steel 4-0 on Friday night to leapfrog over Nashville into second place. The Red Bulls are six points behind the Rowdies but they do have the advantage of a game in hand. Tampa Bay now has 29 points on the season through 13 matches. Last year, the Rowdies didn’t pick up their 29th point of the season until September 1, their 26th match of the season. Unsurprisingly, the Rowdies are in pretty good shape overall, 16 points above the current playoff line.
Statistics website FiveThirtyEight.com’s projections now give the Rowdies more than a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs, a 28 percent chance of winning the Eastern Conference playoffs and an 18 percent chance of winning the USL Cup Final. Phoenix Rising FC is second-favorite to win the Final at 15 percent. Nashville (10 percent) and Indy (eight percent) are the next closest in the East.
3. Johnson Joins the Attack
It’s been a trying year for young Canadian Malik Johnson since joining the Rowdies this winter. Johnson moved away from home for the first time at the age of 20 and suffered a shoulder injury in the first few days of preseason training that would force him to wait until May 25 to make his Tampa Bay Rowdies debut.
His first appearance was an 11-minute cameo off the bench last weekend against Swope Park Rangers to get some of the nerves out before making his first start Tuesday night in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
That start didn’t last long as Johnson took a blow to the face just 10 minutes into the match, breaking his nose despite a foul not even being called. After a few minutes receiving treatment on the field, a clearly frustrated Johnson exited the match early.
Johnson recovered in time for last night’s game in Birmingham, earning his first league start of the year. He played in the match in a protective mask. Playing in the right wing back spot, Johnson tallied an assist on Andrew Tinari’s goal, a good start to his nascent Rowdies career.
In large part due to the inclusion of Johnson, now 21 years old, the Rowdies again reset the Modern Era club record for youngest starting XI at 23.6 years old. Jordan Doherty (18), Caleb Richards (20), Johnson (21), Juan Tejada (22) and Tinari (23) all fall at or under that average age with Dom Oduro (24) not far past it. The youngsters once again proved themselves more than up to the task.