ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (March 24, 2018) — For a moment or two early in the second half, the crowd gathered inside Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night may have wondered if it was going to be one of those stubborns nights where the Tampa Bay Rowdies outplay their opponent but don’t get the result they deserve.
With Bethlehem Steel FC John McCarthy racking up the saves and a controversial decision having gone against the Rowdies just before halftime, it was starting to feel like it wasn’t Tampa Bay’s night.
But then, a pair of quick-fire goals from Georgi Hristov and Leo Fernandes in the 62nd and 68th minutes, respectively, puts those fears to bed and sent the 7,368 Rowdies fans home happy with a 2-0 Tampa Bay win.
With the result in the books, the Rowdies (2-0-0, 6 points) preserve their unbeaten record in home openers in the Modern Era.
“I thought it was a real good performance,” Rowdies Head Coach Stuart Campbell said. “I thought we defended really well as a team and attacked really, really well as a team. … We started the second half really well and got a couple of goals.”
Coming off a 4-1 win last weekend, Bethlehem (1-1-0, 3 points) looked sharp in the early going with Tampa Bay forced onto the back foot a bit. Rowdies goalkeeper Cody Mizell made a pair of early saves, including a nice tip over of the crossbar from a Cory Burke header in the 6th minute.
Once the Rowdies clicked into gear, though, Tampa Bay looked like too much for Steel FC to handle.
Tampa Bay’s first great scoring chance came in the 20th minute when David Najem slipped a through ball in for Joe Cole to shoot on the spin, but McCarthy made an excellent kick save to deny Cole the opening goal.
A controversial moment arrived in the 45th minute when McCarthy made back-to-back saves to deny Leo Fernandes twice, only for Fernandes to take a third shot that forced Steel FC defender AJ Paterson to clear the ball as he fell into his own net. The Rowdies felt the ball crossed the line and began to celebrate, but the goal wasn’t given.
The Rowdies took 16 shots (eight on target) in the first half, but were unable to break through officially and put a goal on the board.
With it all to play for in the second half, the Rowdies put Bethlehem to the sword.
A Jack Blake free kick in the 62nd minute proved dangerous, with Hristov heading past McCarthy to put Tampa Bay up 1-0. It was Hristov’s second goal in as many matches and leaves him just two goals short of tying Derek Smethurst for Tampa Bay’s all-time goalscoring record.
Just six minutes later, Fernandes took a defender on one-on-one and fired a low shot to the far post to double the lead. It was Fernandes’ second goal in as many matches as well.
“I thought we responded really well in the second half,” Fernandes said. “We came out firing and Georgi scored a really nice goal. It was a relief that we finally got one because we had pressed so hard in the first half.”
With a two-goal lead, the Rowdies closed the match out professionally to secure the victory.
Mizell made four saves to pick up his first clean sheet of the young season.
The Rowdies are on the road next week for an early season showdown with defending champion Louisville City FC before returning home to host Ottawa Fury FC on Saturday, April 7. For tickets, call (727) 222-2000 or click here.
Tampa Bay: Georgi Hristov - 62nd minute (assisted by Jack Blake)
Tampa Bay: Leo Fernandes - 68th minute (assisted by David Najem)
Bethlehem: Fabian Herbers - 54th minute
Tampa Bay: David Najem - 90th minute
Rowdies XI (4-3-3): GK Cody Mizell; D David Najem, Hunter Gorskie, Neill Collins, Zac Portillos; M Joe Cole (c) (Lance Rozeboom 74'), Jack Blake, Marcel Schäfer; F Junior Flemmings (Sebastian Guenzatti 33' (Jochen Graf 86')), Georgi Hristov, Leo Fernandes
Bethlehem Steel FC (4-2-3-1): GK Tomas Romero; D Matt Mahoney, Brandon Aubrey, AJ Paterson, Prosper Chiluya (Mike Catalano 82'); M Derrick Jones, James Chambers (c); M Anthony Fontana, Marcus Epps, Fabian Herbers (Santi Moar 67'); F Cory Burke (Brandon Allen 75')