ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As he entered with nine minutes to go, their season hanging by a thread, the Tampa Bay Rowdies hoped their final roll of the dice in substitute Lucky Mkosana would come through one more time in the postseason.
Two goals later – the fifth and sixth of his postseason career in the USL Championship, the second of which came in the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time – the veteran forward had written his name into the club’s folklore.
Mkosana’s double and a goal in the opening period of extra time by Steevan Dos Santos saw the Rowdies claim their second consecutive USL Championship Eastern Conference title with a 3-2 win against Louisville City FC before a sellout crowd of 7,120 fans at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night as the hosts rallied from a two-goal halftime deficit to advance to the 2021 USL Championship Final.
Tampa Bay will host Orange County SC in next weekend’s title game, with kickoff at Al Lang Stadium set for 8:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, November 28. The game will air live on ESPN, ESPN Deportes and SiriusXM FC.
The Rowdies sent the game to extra time with the final attack – and final touch – of regulation time. After a shot by Laurence Wyke after a free kick deep in stoppage time was deflected wide for a corner kick, the hosts kept the play alive in the penalty area as LouCity tried to clear to bring the final whistle. After a chipped cross from the top-right edge of the penalty area by Aaron Guillen found Forrest Lasso in the left edge of the six-yard area, the center back’s header across goal was seized upon by Mkosana, who barreled in and headed home into the roof of the net for his second goal of the night.
The Zimbabwean then appeared to have completed his hat trick in extra time as another header by Lasso – this time from the center of the penalty area toward the left side of the box – was headed past LouCity goalkeeper Chris Hubbard but cleared off the line by Pat McMahon as the ball came off the underside of the crossbar on it way out of the clearance.
The hosts took the lead in the 102nd minute, however, as Wyke received possession on the right and delivered a sweeping cross to the back post where Dos Santos was on hand to head home powerfully into the left side of the net.
Having seen their first-half lead evaporate, Louisville had a chance to pull back level early in the second period of extra time as Oscar Jimenez drove a shot from 25 yards from the left channel just over the crossbar, but the Rowdies continued to try and maintain the initiative to put the game away. Leo Fernandes was denied in the 114th minute by an excellent low save by Hubbard to turn a shot wide of the right post, and the attacking midfielder had another chance blocked minutes later.
LouCity carved out another big chance with two minutes remaining, though, as Antoine Hoppenot created space to deliver a cross from the right that reached the top of the penalty area where Jimenez fired first time, only to see his effort tipped over by Rowdies goalkeeper Evan Louro. That proved the final chance for the visitors as the Rowdies held firm to advance.
The night had begun in ideal fashion for LouCity as after going behind early when the sides met at the same stage of the postseason a year ago, the visitors took the early advantage in the rematch. Awarded a free kick in the left channel 30 yards from goal, Jimenez delivered a fine cross to the top-right edge of the six-yard area where Brian Ownby was on hand to volley home for his first goal of this postseason and his seventh goal in the USL Championship Playoffs overall.
The hill for the Rowdies became steeper in the 23rd minute as LouCity added to its lead through a miscue from the hosts at the back. After Paolo DelPiccolo was played in on the left side, his low cross to the near post was redirected by Lasso, who inadvertently steered the ball into the back of the net.
Tampa Bay’s first good look on goal didn’t arrive until just before the half-hour mark as the hosts were awarded a set piece just outside the top-left edge of the penalty area. Rowdies midfielder Lewis Hilton tried to catch Hubbard cheating to the near post, but Hubbard reacted well and got back to parry away the driven shot to the right corner. The hosts also threatened as Sebastian Dalgaard fizzed a low cross through the six-yard area that squeezed under Hubbard’s attempt to claim, but the ball deflected to safety allowing the defense to clear.
Louisville almost added a third inside the opening minute of the second half when Jorge Gonzalez drove a near-post cross from the left for DelPiccolo at the near post where Louro made a brave save at point-blank range. Dalgaard then teed up an effort for the Rowdies in the 58th minute that flashed just over the crossbar from 20 yards, while Dos Santos fired a turning shot nine minutes later from the top of the penalty area that Hubbard was well positioned to save.
The Rowdies pulled within a goal with seven minutes remaining, however, as two minutes after coming on as a substitute, Mkosana notched his second goal of the postseason with a driven finish through a crowd after a corner kick from the right had pinballed around the penalty area before coming to the Zimbabwean veteran at the top of the penalty area.
The hosts continued to press for an equalizer as the game wound down, and Mkosana had a flicked header on target that Hubbard saved in the opening minute of stoppage time after Wyke delivered an angled ball from the right into the near post. But the super-sub’s dramatic late equalizer would send the game to extra time, from where the Rowdies’ momentum saw them claim their second consecutive Eastern Conference title and the right to host the final game of the season.
USLChampionship.com Man of the Match
Lucky Mkosana, Tampa Bay Rowdies – The veteran made the key difference after coming on with nine minutes to go, scoring twice and almost bagging a third as his postseason legend continued to grow with Tampa Bay.
LOU – Brian Ownby (Oscar Jimenez) 10’
LOU – Forrest Lasso (Own Goal) 23’
TBR – Lucky Mkosana 83’
TBR – Lucky Mkosana (Forrest Lasso) 90+6’
TBR – Steevan Dos Santos (Laurence Wyke) 102’