ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – If the postseason is a second season, consider Saturday night the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ marker that they don’t expect anything to change.
A five-goal second half that saw Leo Fernandes score twice and Lucky Mkosana record one goal and two assists after coming on with two minutes remaining led the Rowdies to a 6-2 victory against FC Tulsa on Saturday night before a crowd of 6,262 fans at Al Lang Stadium in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires.
Tampa Bay will play host to Birmingham Legion FC in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Al Lang Stadium next weekend as it continues its defense of its Eastern Conference crown in a rematch from last year's postseason.
The Rowdies opened the game on the front foot, controlling both more possession and getting into more dangerous positions, but a fluke play almost gave them the lead in the 10th minute when Tulsa goalkeeper Austin Wormell almost took too much time in clearing a ball from his own penalty area and had the effort charged down by Tampa Bay captain Sebastian Guenzatti, only for the blocked ball to slide just wide of the right post.
The pressure continued to build for the hosts, however, and almost resulted in a breakthrough in the 17th minute. A low cross from the right by Conner Antley was deflected at the near post back to Laurence Wyke, whose first-time shot toward the left corner was blocked by Tulsa’s Modou Jadama before Guenzatti’s attempt on the carom was denied by Bradley Bourgeois, deflecting the shot wide for a corner. Four minutes later, though, the breakthrough arrived as Antley delivered a low cross into the six-yard area that Guenzatti turned home.
Having gained the lead, Tampa Bay quickly went in pursuit of a second. In the 25th minute, Lewis Hilton flashed a shot just over the top-left corner of the net after a half-cleared free kick into the penalty area, while two minutes later Steevan Dos Santos saw a goal ruled out for a foul in the penalty area as he clipped a defender while trying to get to a near-post cross. Wyke then might have done better 10 minutes before halftime as he sent a turning shot from 14 yards well over the crossbar with a clear target to shoot for.
Tulsa’s first real look on goal arrived two minutes before halftime as Matt Sheldon picked up a loose ball and quickly delivered a shot from 25 yards that took a deflection and went wide of the left post, but the visitors were unable to get much going overall as the first half drew to a close. While the end of the first half provided some potential hope for the visitors, that quickly evaporated a minute into the second half when the Rowdies immediate pressure paid off. A pass by Wyke into the right side of the penalty area found Dos Santos, and his low driven ball into the six-yard area caromed off Tulsa’s Kembo Kibato and into the left corner of the net.
Two minutes later Tampa Bay almost added another as a turning shot by Guenzatti clipped off a challenging defender’s foot and rang the top-right of the crossbar, but Dos Santos got his name officially on the score sheet in the 56th minute when the Cape Verde forward crashed in at the back post to get on the end of a corner kick by Lewis Hilton and headed home.
Facing a three-goal deficit, Tulsa tried to find a way back into the game and only two minutes after Dos Santos’ goal the visitors almost found a reply when Eric Bird fired a shot from 30 yards that deflected off a defender at the top of the area to wrong-foot Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro only to hit the right post and carom away to safety. The breakthrough for the visitors came in the 67th minute when El Salvador international Joaquin Rivas received possession 30 yards from goal in the right channel and drifted centrally onto his left foot before unleashing a low strike into the right corner.
Tampa Bay immediately got back on the front foot, however, and Wormell made an outstanding save in the 70th minute to keep Dos Santos from his second goal of the nigh, turning the ball over the crossbar on a volleyed finish from the center of the penalty area. The road back for the visitors became steeper three minutes later when Eric Bird was sent off for his second yellow card of the night, and from there the Rowdies looked for more.
Both Guenzatti and Antley had chances go astray inside the final 15 minutes before Fernandes notched the fourth for the hosts with a minute to go. That set off a flurry of finishes for both sides as Dario Suarez delivered an outstanding long-range strike for Tulsa as the smoke was still billowing from the Rowdies’ supporters’ section to make it a two-goal game once more before Mkosana got into the act in stoppage time. Fernandes then wrapped the game up for the hosts with almost the final kick of the game, sending Tampa Bay on in emphatic style.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Leo Fernandes, Tampa Bay Rowdies – Fernandes was rewarded with a pair of late goals for a strong overall performance that saw the left-sided midfielder record four shots and four key passes while completing 36 of 44 passes overall.
TBR – Sebastian Guenzatti (Conner Antley) 21’
TBR – Kembo Kibato (Own Goal) 46’
TBR – Steevan Dos Santos (Lewis Hilton) 56’
TUL – Joaquin Rivas (Modou Jadama) 67’
TBR – Leo Fernandes (Lucky Mkosana) 89’
TUL – Dario Suarez (Bradley Bourgeois) 90’
TBR – Lucky Mkosana 90+2’
TBR – Leo Fernandes (Lucky Mkosana) 90+5’