Rowdies will host Phoenix Rising FC on Nov. 1
By Official Florida FC
Few will remember how the Tampa Bay Rowdies scored their two goals at Lynn Family Stadium on Sunday night. Few will forget that the Rowdies were able to beat the USL Championship’s best team defense twice, en route to the club’s first USL Eastern Conference title on Sunday night.
The Rowdies beat Louisville City 2-1 to advance to the USL Cup final for the first time. Goals from Zach Steinberger and Sebastián Guenzatti were enough to secure the upset.
Tampa Bay will host Phoenix Rising on Sunday, Nov. 1 at Al Lang Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.
“This is the best feeling I’ve had as a coach. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve had of my career,” Rowdies manager Neill Collins told reporters afterward. “I almost feel tonight has not just been two-and-a-half years in the making. I feel as if it’s been four years in the making ever since we joined the USL.
“I think a big reason for giving up my playing career was trying to get us to where I felt our club deserved to be. The team behind the scenes were the best in the league, unfortunately the team on the field was just a little bit behind. It doesn’t happen overnight, and we need to sustain it now and build on it.”
The club, revived in 2010 in the now-defunct NASL Conference, will play for its third league title. The Tampa Bay Rowdies won the North American Soccer League in 2012. A previous iteration of the club won the NASL’s Soccer Bowl in 1975.
The Rowdies (10-3-3, 33 points) are hosting the final, despite the fact Phoenix Rising (11-3-2, 35 points) had a better regular season record.
Phoenix relinquished the right to host the USL Cup final on Oct. 20 because the club was awarded a forefit win over San Diego Loyal earlier this season following a reprehensible incident where Rising forward Junior Flemmings uttered a homophobic slur toward a gay Loyal player.
On the touchline, Rising manager Rick Schantz tried to sweep the incident away and continue to play. In protest, San Diego walked off the pitch. The USL awarded Phoenix three points from the unfinished match.
Flemmings, the Rising’s leading scorer with 14 goals in 14 games, was suspended for six games.
“While our dream has been to host a USL Championship Final in Phoenix, the integrity of our Club and city comes first,” said Phoenix Rising FC governor Berke Bakay in an Oct. 20 statement. “…We would prefer to shine a positive light on our commitment to the LGBTQ community and amplify the need for acceptance and equality in professional sports.”
On the pitch, Phoenix enter as prohibitive favorites. The Rising have won eight of their last nine matches that were completed.
None of Phoenix’s matches in the USL Cup playoffs have been straightforward. Without Flemmings, the Rising have yet to win in 90 minutes.
Solomon Asante scored in the 114th minute of a 1-0 Western Conference quarterfinal win over Sacramento on Oct. 10. The club trailed Reno 1868 2-0 in a Western Conference semifinal before winning in penalty kicks. On Sunday night, Phoenix once again needed penalty kicks to advance to its second USL Cup Final.
Phoenix Rising advanced to the 2018 USL Cup Final, where it lost on the road against Louisville FC. Afterward, Rising head coach Rick Schantz told the Louisville Courier-Journal he will not soon forget the sting of finising second.
“I’ll always be able to remember watching them raise their Cup. That’s a moment I won’t ever forget. It’s burned in my memory,” Schantz said at the time. “It’s going to be drive and desire and passion to get back here and lift that cup ourselves.”
Three starters from the 2018 setback, Asante, midfielder Kevon Lambert and central defender Joe Farrell started on Sunday night against El Paso Locomotive.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has turned over its roster since Collins moved from central defense to manager’s chair early in the 2018 season.
Only two members of the starting XI that ended the 2019 season started Saturday’s win over Louisville City. Steinberger, who came off the bench for Collins in the 2019 USL playoffs, scored the opener on Saturday night.
Steinberger has scored or assisted a goal in every round of the USL Cup playoffs. The 28-year-old midfielder leads the Rowdies with four assists in 11 matches.
If Stenberger and Guenzatti can remain hot, as they have throughout the USL Championship playoffs, the Rowdies may be lifting the trophy on Sunday night. Tampa Bay is 11-0-0 this season when scoring first and 2-3-3 when they do not.
The Rowdies were the first professional sports team in greater Tampa Bay to return following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and World Series participant Tampa Bay Rays, the Rowdies will have a chance to hoist their championship trophy in front of home fans.