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THE MORNING TEA – Rowdies’ Ekra Providing Midfield Spark for Title Contenders

By NICHOLAS MURRAY - nicholas.murray@uslsoccer.com, 09/11/20, 7:30AM EDT

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After Thursday night's incredible ending in North Caroilna, this weekend’s action gets underway tonight with a compelling East-West doubleheader on ESPN+, and to start today we take a look at one of the players that could have a key role to play if his side is to lock up a postseason berth. Here’s your Morning Tea for Friday.

 

THE BIG STORY

For Head Coach Neill Collins, there’s something about the way Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder Yann Ekra can influence a game.

“When he’s fit and he’s in full flow, I just think he makes our team very exciting,” Collins told the UnUsed Subs Jake Nutting. “That was one of the things we wanted to do. We want to give the fans a team that they enjoy watching, that gets them up off their seats. When you see Yann driving with the ball, Malik Johnson driving past people, Leo Fernandes and Seba Guenzatti linking up; that’s the kind of football that we want to watch.

“We want to win, but we want to win a certain way. Yann’s a big part of that. You can see in his last two games he’s had a good effect.”

That ability on the ball has been maybe the central characteristic Ekra has been known for since he arrived in the Championship with the Harrisburg City Islanders for the 2012 campaign. Now in his ninth season in the league, Ekra is approaching 200 regular season appearances for his career – he currently sits on 189 going into Friday night’s game between the Rowdies and Charleston Battery – and is still providing the same fluid and technical connection through the midfield and into the final third that make his teams better.

Until recently, Rowdies fans haven’t had the chance to see that consistently from the native of the Côte d’Ivoire, mostly due to injury. Last year was the first time in a Championship season that Ekra didn’t make at least 20 appearances, and he also struggled early on following the resumption of the season. What helped, though, was the way the team rallied around him as he worked to get back on the field.

“You have to be strong mentally to come back and try to be stronger,” Ekra told Nutting. “It was tough, but I had people around me like the staff and all my teammates. When I had my injury, they were always behind me, trying to help me. That’s really helped, actually. If you are injured and no-one really cares, you put your head down and can be hurt my psychologically. But the team we have and the staff were really with me during that period.”

Now Ekra’s teammates are benefiting from his presence on the field. With three assists and eight chances created in 367 minutes of action this season, Ekra is putting in solid work in the center of midfield. Among players with at least 150 pass completions this season, he ranks 10th in the Championship with an 89.7 passing accuracy rate.

Having reached the Championship Final in 2014 when he notched six assists for the City Islanders in the regular season, if Ekra’s form continues there could be a chance at a return trip at the end of this season.

 

TONIGHT'S ACTION

Charleston Battery vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies

(6-2-3)
Group H

7:30 p.m. ET |
Venue: Patriots Point Soccer Complex

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: CHS Wins 29% | Draw 29% | TBR Wins 42%
(8-1-3)
Group H
The Gist: The Tampa Bay Rowdies can become the first team to clinch a place in the playoffs in the 2020 USL Championship season with either a win or a draw against the Charleston Battery, while the hosts can close the gap on first place in Group H as they return to Patriots Point. The Battery are on a seven-game undefeated streak after playing to a 1-1 draw last time out with Miami FC, a run that included a 1-0 victory against Tampa Bay on August 29 that handed the Rowdies their lone loss of the season. Charleston enters six point back of the Rowdies in the standings, but with a game in hand it would have a chance to draw level on points with Tampa Bay if it can find a second home win. For the Rowdies victory would not only clinch a place in the playoffs, but also serve as another step toward ensuring homefield advantage in the playoffs for the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay currently sits with two points more than Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC with each team having four games to play, and after a disappointing display in their last trip to Charleston the Rowdies will be expecting a much better display this time around.
Discipline: None

Phoenix Rising FC vs. Las Vegas Lights FC

(7-2-2)
Group B

10:30 p.m. ET |
Venue: Casino Arizona Field

FiveThirtyEight.com Predictor: PHX Wins 80% | Draw 13% | LV Wins 7%
(2-5-3)
Group B
The Gist: Phoenix Rising FC returns home after a four-game road trip to square off for a second consecutive contest with Las Vegas Lights FC, which is in must-win territory after suffering a 2-0 loss to Phoenix at home last weekend. The victory at Cashman Field – which included Junior Flemmings’ league-best 11th goal of the season – moved Rising FC five points clear at the top of Group B, a position that was retained on Wednesday night as both the second-placed LA Galaxy II and third-placed Orange County SC suffered defeats. Phoenix has been perfect at home this season and will close out its regular season schedule with four of its final five games on home turf. Lights FC will try to break that streak, though, with its recent upswing in form prior to last weekend’s defeat having shown positive signs even with the playoffs likely out of reach.
Discipline: None
 

THE SOCIAL CIRCLE

 

THE USL LOWDOWN

- Memphis 901 FC looked like it had let more points slip through its fingers after North Carolina FC rallied from a two-goal deficit late in the second half, but Matt Hundley's goal deep in stoppage time gave the visitors a 3-2 win at Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on Thursday night. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal's Corinne Kennedy has more on a game that could only be described as having a wild ending.

- USL partner Alianza de Futbol’s traditional summer series offering chances for players to be scouted across the United States was postponed earlier this year, but the organization is still finding a way to make an impact in the communities it was scheduled to visit. Starting in El Paso this Saturday, Alianza Contiga will supply both a food pantry and a household pantry, providing necessary items to those in need.

- Members of the USL Black Players Alliance including the Charlotte Independence’s Brandon Miller and Hugh Roberts and Loudoun United FC’s Peabo Doue engaged in a roundtable discussion with Beautiful Game Network on how the USL has handled the fight for racial equality so far and what they would like to see happen in the future.

- As we featured earlier this week, New Mexico United will serve as “hosts” when it faces Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at Weidner Field on September 19, and the club is open to taking other potential home games – including potential playoff games – on the road. “I definitely think we may be moving other games to Colorado, even if we’re not playing [the Switchbacks],” United President Peter Trevisani told the Albuquerque Journal’s Ken Sickenger, “essentially just renting their stadium. … And if we get to the playoffs, I absolutely think we’d be looking at renting, depending on how deep we go, an even bigger stadium.”

- After the club’s best week of the season, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC will try to extend its lead at the top of Group F as it faces Hartford Athletic at Highmark Stadium. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Greg Macafee has more on the matchup, and how some new faces have arrived to help bolster the squad over the past two weeks.

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