The Tampa Bay Rowdies had some first-game nerves, but the defending Eastern Conference Title-holders clicked into gear in the second half in a 3-0 win against the Charlotte Independence. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdieses
There was plenty to digest from this weekend’s fuller Eastern Conference slate of action, here are five talking points coming out of the games.
Even when you’ve got as much returning talent as defending Eastern Conference Title holder the Tampa Bay Rowdies – whose 15 players back from the 2020 season registered 84.1 percent of the club’s overall minutes last year – there is always the potential for opening-night nerves. So it proved for Head Coach Neill Collins’ side in a 3-0 win against the Charlotte Independence that ended up looking a lot more comfortable in the final score than in the overall performance.
“I think as a player you have so much time off, you’re so eager, you’re out in front of fans. There can be a lot of nervous energy leading up to that,” said Collins after the game. “You can end up being a little flat. It took a little bit of the anxiety away to get that first goal and Charlotte had to change their game plan. First game – win, lose or draw – you know you’re going to come away thinking there’s lots to work on. I’m just glad we got the result.”
That opening goal came – of course – from Sebastian Guenzatti, whose confidently taken penalty kick settled the hosts down in attack at Al Lang Stadium. The Rowdies’ captain went on to add another goal and an assist on Tampa Bay’s third goal of the night, which saw the Rowdies at their decisive best as newcomer Steevan Dos Santos fed Guenzatti inside the penalty area. One deft pass later to Leo Fernandes, and the ball was in the back of the net to give Tampa Bay a winning start to its pursuit of more silverware.
It wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as you might have hoped between two sides in Birmingham Legion FC and Indy Eleven that have some impressive talent – more on that in a minute – but Indy’s 1-0 victory showed off an impressive defensive solidity on the road at BBVA Field. Newcomer A.J. Cochran took a leading role alongside returning veterans Karl Ouimette and Neveal Hackshaw in repelling the direct play employed by Birmingham and limiting the threat to goalkeeper Jordan Farr.
“A.J. [Cochran] won a lot of good headers, and I also think that helps a lot if a team is playing long balls,” said Indy. “They had J.J. Williams, who is a threat, but A.J. won those battles and that helps us. The players from the front worked very hard to that shut down the opportunities and in the end that was a good clean sheet.”
Legion FC registered only two shots from inside the penalty area on Saturday night and suffered a short-term blow as Williams was sent off late. That means Birmingham is set to be without him and Junior Flemmings for next Saturday’s trip to face Louisville City FC, and is going to need to find a way to generate more scoring chances to avoid falling to consecutive defeats to start the campaign.
Birmingham Legion FC President and GM Jay Heaps didn’t mince words on the field conditions Saturday’s home opener at BBVA Field were played through, with the dry pitch visibly kicking up dust throughout the contest.
“We are extremely disappointed with the condition of the field tonight,” said Heaps in a statement following the game. “We were assured by the UAB Athletic Department and UAB Grounds Crew that the field would be ready for the first game of the season after transitioning the surface from rye grass to bermuda grass. Unfortunately, the field was not ready and nearly unplayable.
“Without making excuses about the field’s impact on the result, as a professional soccer team and partner in this community, our players, opponents, sponsors, and fans deserve better from the UAB Athletics Department as we, and BBVA, have invested in this stadium and campus. We are disappointed and feel let down as this situation put both teams at risk.”
Legion FC travels to face Louisville City FC next Saturday night before welcoming rival Memphis 901 FC on Saturday, May 15 for its second home game of the season. It will be interesting to see what solution might be found to help provide a more amenable surface for quality action between now and then.
Rodrigo Da Costa (left) and Dario Suarez provided the goals as FC Tulsa claimed its first win in club history against Sporting Kansas City II on Saturday night at ONEOK Field. | Photo courtesy James Taylor / FC Tulsa
Even after all the positives that came with the start of the FC Tulsa era last year, there was one thing that continued to dog Head Coach Michael Nsien’s side going into 2021 – having never defeated Sporting Kansas City II in nine matches all-time. So, when a pair of first-half goals by Rodrigo Da Costa and Dario Suarez avenged the club’s sole loss at ONEOK Field in 2020 in this year’s home opener, it certainly felt good to chalk up after the game.
“That was painful for us,” said Nsien of the 2020 defeat. “We felt like we were well in control of the game, so all week we marked it, talked about it, and said ‘there’s no way they come here and get a point, it’s impossible.’ The attitude was good from the start, and the leaders really made sure to amplify that on the field.”
Tulsa’s now scored four first-half goals in its opening two games of the season, a key to grabbing the early lead in the Central Division and the Eastern Conference overall. With 4,241 fans on hand – the most since the club’s relaunch and rebrand – the club’s progression continues to impress.
“I think everybody was happy and we did a good job,” said Da Costa. “The team, we see some improvements from the OKC game to this game. We see a lot of improvement and I think we need to stay on this run and keep improving every single game so we can start to think about the playoffs and try to make our plans.”
There’s no way to sugarcoat it, the two home defeats to start the season suffered by OKC Energy FC is far from ideal. A defensive lapse that allowed Phillip Goodrum to get in behind for a simple finish on Saturday night at Taft Stadium and lift Atlanta United 2 to victory kept Energy FC without a point this season, and reason to be concerned after the continuation of the struggles the side faced in 2020.
“When we miss tackles on the edge of the box, sometimes you have last-ditch decisions to make and it causes disorganization,” said Energy FC defender Mitch Osmond. “In that split-second we made a mistake and they punished us. It honestly needs to stop. We can’t keep conceding goals like that.”
In terms of morale, both Osmond and Head Coach John Pascarella were adamant that the locker room was ready to get back to work and find the improvements it needed this week ahead of a Friday-night clash with Sporting Kansas City II. As competitive as the Central Division appears it’s going to be, it might not be too early to say it’s a game that Energy FC needs to get something out of to start turning things in the right direction.