ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (October 22, 2017) — The Tampa Bay Rowdies opened their USL Cup Playoffs journey in perfect fashion Saturday night, demolishing FC Cincinnati 3-0 with a brilliant team performance to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals next weekend.
Marcel Schäfer scored a pair of goals in the first half and Georgi Hristov added a third for good measure in the second half to set up a second round date against the New York Red Bulls II at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday, October 28 at 7:30.
Here’s Three Things from the match…
1. Win and advance
The Tampa Bay Rowdies hadn’t played a postseason match in nearly five years, but it looks like the Rowdies thrived in the pressure of a win-or-go-home playoff match. Tampa Bay was on the front foot from the very start and needed only eight minutes to pull ahead, with Marcel Schäfer beating Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt from a sharp angle to give the Rowdies a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Another goal for Schäfer in the 25th minute and Georgi Hristov’s 67th minute finish padded the score line, but neither were truly even necessary thanks to a suffocating performance from the Rowdies’ defensive ranks. Cincinnati only managed one shot on target all night, which was denied by a beautiful Matt Pickens save.
FC Cincinnati had its fair share of possession and put up respectable passing statistics, but its attack was rendered toothless by a collective defensive performance from the Rowdies in a continuation of Tampa Bay’s home form this season.
After 17 homes games at Al Lang this year, the Rowdies have now won 12 times and lost just once, conceding only nine goals. There’s no doubt that last night’s performance was aided by the incredible energy provided by the Rowdies faithful.
“I sensed (a playoff atmosphere) all week,” Tampa Bay Head Coach Stuart Campbell said. “When we got to stadium I could tell, just by how many people were here early in the afternoon. You could just feel it in the air, I think everybody could feel the playoff atmosphere in here tonight. The noise that our fans made was tremendous.”
2. Marcel’s latest masterclass
It’s impossible to find a poor performance anywhere in the Rowdies’ side, but even on a team that played well in the collective, German midfielder Marcel Schäfer was on another level.
A bona fide USL Most Valuable Player candidate in his first season in the USL, Schäfer has been masterful. His two goals Saturday night moved his season total to seven. He also has 11 assists, just one fewer than the regular season assist leader, Reno’s Chris Wehan. Those stats despite the fact that Schäfer played the early part of the season at left back and is often deployed as a deep-lying midfielder.
Schäfer has scored a brace in each of his last two home games, netting two against the New York Red Bulls II on October 4 to clinch the Rowdies’ ticket to the postseason and then two more against FC Cincinnati last night to book their ticket to the Conference Semifinals.
“Today was a special day for us,” Schäfer said. “That’s what you work for the entire season, these special moments, but I have to say it’s just one step. We have one or two more steps to go because we have targets and goals that we want to reach.”
As stellar as the former VfL Wolfsburg captain and Bundesliga champion has been on the field, his contribution to the locker room has been just as valuable.
“(Marcel is) just outstanding, isn’t he? For a player of his caliber, for what he’s achieved in the game to have the attitude and application that he’s shown all season he’s an example for any player, not just younger players, but any professional players,” Campbell said. “Look at the drive and determination he’s got. He’s been absolutely great. Not just by what you see on the pitch, but what he brings in the locker room and the training field. He never misses a day of practice.”
3. On to the next one
Thanks to the New York Red Bulls II’s upset over second-seeded Charleston on Saturday night, the Rowdies get to host at least one more playoff game, welcoming the defending USL Cup champions to Al Lang next weekend.
The match figures to be an exciting one, with New York boasting one of the most dynamic attacks in the USL with youth and speed at every position.
The Rowdies split their season series with the Red Bulls this year, losing 4-2 in New Jersey in September and winning 3-2 at home in October, so Saturday’s night’s rubber match looks like it’ll be a good one. For tickets, call (727) 222-2000 or click here.