In their third meeting with Atlanta United 2 on Saturday night, the Tampa Bay Rowdies secured their sixth win of the year. The Rowdies have now bested Atlanta every time they’ve met, this time knocking off the MLS reserve side 2-1 thanks to two incredible first-half strikes by Jordan Doherty and Kyle Murphy.
Rowdies head coach Neill Collins made an adjustment to how his side lined up for this week’s matchup, starting strikers Sebastian Guenzatti, Juan Tejada and Murphy up top in hopes of kickstarting the attack.
“Heading into tonight’s game, we just thought (the change) would give us the best opportunity to perform well,” Collins said. “It was nice to get three strikers out there, but with Seba and Juan you’ve got good guys that can drop in and pick up pockets.
“I thought the performance overall was very good, very promising. I think it’s a credit to the team that whatever we ask them to do in terms of tactically, they normally do a pretty good job of implementing it… You have to adjust. We’ve done that and tonight I was pleased with all aspects of of he performance and the shape of the team as well.”
The Rowdies were on top of Atlanta early on, with right wingback Malik Johnson being the catalyst for much of the pressure. Keeper Ben Lundgaard and Atlanta’s defense were up to the task in the early stages, though. Johnson, Guenzatti, Sebastian Dalgaard and Tejada all had promising opportunties either blocked by a defender or saved by Lundgaard in the first 20 minutes.
Atlanta needed Lundgaard to be on his game and he mostly was, saving seven of nine shots put on frame by the Rowdies.
“We were unlucky on two or three occasions with blocks and hitting the post. But on other occasions we need to do better,” Collins noted. “Very pleasing to be creating these opportunities and getting into those spots. It’s something we need to keep building on. “
That first one to beat Lundgaard ended up being Doherty in the 21st minute. Receiving a pass from Yann Ekra in the middle of the field, Doherty looked up and confidently launched a long-range shot. through a couple defenders. Lundgaard made a valiant effort diving right, but Doherty’s strike was too strong. It was the teenagers first career goal, and an extremely well taken one.
“You’ll always get plaudits for a goal, but I actually thought, particularly in the first half, I thought he was fantastic,” Collins said of Doherty. “Please remember, he’s only 19 years old. Normally people are going off to college at this point. He’s become an integral part of our team.”
Seeing Doherty tally his first, Murphy decided it was good time to notch his first in a Rowdies shirt as well in the 40th minute. Leading the charge up top, the striker turned to face goal around the same distance that Doherty scored from and ripped a first-touch blast that glanced the inside of the right post and slipped past Lundgaard.
Collins had high praise for his team’s performance in the opening half, when the Rowdies looked determined to put the ball in the net and create havoc for the visitors at every chance.
“I’ll be honest and say like yourself and some of others that were here, I sat back and enjoyed some of that football in the first half,” he said. “We’re here to entertain as well and I thought we did that for large parts of tonight’s game. I was enjoying it as much the fans were I’m sure.”
A steady downpour hung over Al Lang for most of the second half as the Rowdies continued to dominate. The amount of chances decreased in the closing 45, but the Rowdies still managed to prevent Atlanta from threatening much.
Guenzatti had a golden opportunity to add to the lead in the 71st minute. The Rowdies captain earned a penalty after being taken down in the box by Efrain Morales, but his attempt to the left side of the net wasn’t good enough to get by Lundgaard. It was a frustrating moment for Guenzatti, who also powered a one-timed shot past Lundgaard but directly into the right post in the 23rd minute.
Just as Tampa Bay’s fifth clean sheet of the year seemed imminent, Atlanta pulled one back with a penalty of their own in the 90th mintute. Forrest Lasso was the guilty party for a challenge on Phillip Goodrum, who then stepped to the spot and calmly buried the chance.
With the victory the Rowdies climb to 21 points in the standings and remain firmly atop Group H. Second place Charleston Battery had the weekend off but will be back in action this Wednesday against last place Miami before hosting the Rowdies next Saturday. The Battery are currently seven points back but have three head-to-head chances to make up the difference in the final weeks of the season.
The result also signicantly hinders Atlanta’s chances at reaching the posteason. Atlanta sits in third place, 15 points behind the Rowdies with just five matches left to play in its schedule.