ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The second postseason meeting between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Birmingham Legion didn’t contain the fireworks of the first a year ago.
The result, though, was still the same.
A second-half goal by Yann Ekra proved decisive as the Rowdies took a 1-0 victory against Legion FC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires, before a crowd of 5,949 fans at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night to send the defending conference title holders to a second consecutive Eastern Conference Final.
The Rowdies will host either Louisville City FC or the Charlotte Independence next Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET at Al Lang Stadium for a place in the 2021 USL Championship Final.
The Rowdies made a fast start, pushing into attack quickly, and in the fourth minute the hosts were denied after a good move set up Ekra for a shot from the right side of the penalty area that was parried away by Birmingham’s Matt VanOekel and played behind for a corner kick. Off the ensuing set piece, VanOekel came out to punch clear and sent the ball to Tampa Bay’s Laurence Wyke, who spiked his shot into the turf, which saw it loop over the goalkeeper but be headed off the line by Legion FC’s JJ Williams. The Rowdies quickly recycled possession again, but Williams was again on hand to block a shot by Sebastian Guenzatti in the left side of the penalty area to end the danger.
The game settled into a more balanced rhythm after Tampa Bay’s early pressure as both teams had half-chances to take the lead. Birmingham’s first look came in the 11th minute when Prosper Kasim put an effort on target from a narrow angle on the right that Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro saved, while Leo Fernandes had a first-chance effort off an angled ball from Wyke into the left side of the penalty area stopped by VanOekel 12 minutes later.
Neither side was able to break the deadlock before the break, but the Rowdies’ possession and fluidity in the final third saw them earn the lead in the 57th minute. Moving through midfield, Ekra had space to find Antley on the right flank and the French midfielder held his run to remain in space as Antley picked him out with a low cross that Ekra controlled with his first touch and pivoted to fire home to the bottom-left corner of the net with his second.
Legion FC had a chance to equalize with 17 minutes to go as Bruno Lapa’s corner kick from the right was headed on target by Alex Crognale but comfortably saved by Louro. A minute later, Fernandes created a better chance for the hosts as he fired low from the left side of the penalty area through a defender’s legs, forcing an excellent diving save from VanOekel as the ball darted toward the right corner.
As Birmingham tried to find an answer in the final 10 minutes, however, the Rowdies back line and midfield held firm to keep the visitors without a clean look on goal. After one final chance from a central free kick, 40 yards from goal went to naught, the final whistle blew to send the Rowdies through.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Yann Ekra, Tampa Bay Rowdies – Ekra scored the decisive goal for the hosts and was lively otherwise, finishing the night with three shots and one key pass while completing 21 of 24 passes overall.
TBR – Yann Ekra (Conner Antley) 57’