The Rowdies entered their game against Carolina on Wednesday night knowing they would need just a tie to secure a first-round bye and an appearance in the NASL Semifinals. Of course, they knew it would be nice to get a win in front of the home crowd at Al Lang Stadium, but they also understood a loss would put heavy pressure on them in their regular season finale on Saturday at Carolina.
After going up 1-0 in the 13th minute on a header by Andres Arango off a perfectly executed assist by Luke Mulholland, the Rowdies seemed as if they would give the Ralph’s Mob and the smattering of fans at the stadium formerly occupied by Major League Baseball a victory. But the RailHawks moved four players up on the front line in the second half and began peppering Rowdies goalkeeper Jeff Attinella with one shot after another.
Attinella was brilliant with multiple saves, often at point blank before he ultimately gave up a goal created by a former Tampa Bay player he competed against while starring at Countryside in the early aughts. In the 61st minute, former Clearwater High School and All-State performer Brian Shriver found Ty Shipalane at the top of the penalty box and Shiplane’s shot deflected off Rowdies defender Frankie Sanfilippo past a diving Attinella to tie the game.
The match would end in a 1-1 draw, leaving the Rowdies (12-8-7) with 44 points for second place in the NASL standings. They trail first-place San Antonio by two points after the Scorpions suffered a 3-1 loss to Atlanta on Wednesday.
The Rowdies travel to Cary, N.C. to face the RailHawks (10-9-8, 39 points) on Saturday to finish the regular season and the Scorpions host Minnesota FC on Sunday. If the Rowdies win and the Scorpions lose, then Tampa Bay would claim the regular season championship.
“I was more frustrated with the way we gave up the goal,” Attinella said. “They got behind cheaply and it just kept happening and happening and then it came. To our defenses credit, they tightened up and we kept them to one goal.”
Although Rowdies coach Ricky Hill might rest Attinella on Saturday, the Rowdies keeper is pleased with the team’s position.
“There’s no pressure on us now because we know we have a bye and we can just go out there and play (against Carolina on Saturday) with ease,” Attinella said. “But whatever happens, we’re excited about getting second place and getting to the semifinals.”
While the Ralph’s Mob chanted “San Antonio lost” in a desperate plea for the Rowdies to challenge for a win in the final moments against Carolina, Hill was well aware of what a loss would do.
“It was disappointing a few fans were booing because the players deserve more than that after what they’ve been able to do this year,” Hill said. “They (Ralph’s Mob) have been great to us and it was too bad that some of them had to do that, because we always want to win. It’s difficult as to what we want to do. Yes, we want to score, yes, we want to win the game, but we don’t want to lose the game. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario for us. Today was a day where Carolina had nothing to lose and everything to gain, but we had a lot to lose and yes, a great deal to gain, but if we lost, then we had an uphill battle going to Carolina. Now the players can rest, and other players can come in and play their part and get us ready for the playoffs.”
It’s been quite the journey for the Rowdies this season. At one point in the season, they were trudging along and had a 3-3-5 record before seven wins in eight games propelled them into the upper echelon of the standings.
Then, the team’s sparkplug, Tsuyoshi Yoshitake, was transferred to Yokohama FC in Japan and Hill experimented with several lineups throughout August when the Rowdies had three draws and a loss in four matches.
In trying to rekindle the chemistry, the Rowdies have brought in several new players including Carl Cort, a former English Premier League star. Cort, who has been involved with the Guyana national team over the summer, got his first start for the Rowdies on Wednesday and looked the part of a top quality footballer.
Several times, his poise with the ball allowed his teammates to position themselves into opportune locations.
“I’ve been excited to see what he’s capable of doing and he definitely lived up to the hype,” Attinella said. “I’m happy he was able to get the 90 minutes in because now he will be ready to go for the playoffs.”
The Rowdies will play the first game of their two-game semifinal series on the road the weekend of Oct. 6 and host the second on Oct. 13. Their opponent is yet to be determined.
Over the next two weeks, the Rowdies will concentrate on getting their players the necessary rest. They will also focus on building off the foundation they’ve created over the past two weeks.
“We have a good feeling going forward,” Hill said. “The players have a camaraderie. They genuinely like each other, work hard for each other. Yoshi gave us that unpredictability where teams didn’t know what to expect, but we’ve adjusted now with new players and generally, I’m delighted with where we are now.”
Exactly one year ago, the Rowdies clinched a home playoff game with a 1-1 draw against NSC Minnesota at Al Lang Stadium. A few weeks later, the Rowdies’ first postseason experience came to an abrupt end with a 1-0 loss to Minnesota.
Their objective from the beginning of the 2012 campaign was to do much better than that. Not just a playoff win, but a title.
“We’ve been playing since 17 games ago, like it was our playoff season,” Hill said. “It was our mission to get to this point and we have a chance now to complete it.”
THE SIDELINE REPORT:
…Hill said he didn’t play Daniel Antoniuk because he wanted to give the 6-foot-3 forward some rest after he had played a full 90-minutes in the last couple of games.
“We’ve monitored him throughout the year with his stamina and conditioning and we don’t want him to play more than two or three consecutively,” Hill said. “It was also a chance to get Carl out there for a full 90.”
…Cort said he felt relatively fine throughout the match except for the last portion of the game.
“I started to cramp up there with about 10, 15 minutes left, but I wanted to get through the all 90 so I just pushed myself to get there,” Cort said.
…Arango won’t make the trip to face Carolina because he received his fifth yellow card of the season, which is cause for a one-game suspension in the NASL.
QUOTES OF THE DAY:
On how he heard about San Antonio’s loss
“That was easy. The Ralph’s Mob kept chanting it.”
On the play of Attinella
“He’s clearly the best in the league. Thank God for Jeff. He’s our savior.”