The Tampa Bay Rowdies' Lucky Mkosana and Sebastian Guenzatti celebrates with the trophy after winning the Eastern Conference Final of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When the Tampa Bay Rowdies acquired Lucky Mkosana in a trade with Louisville City FC midway through the 2019 USL Championship season, it was with a plan in mind.
By then a veteran at 31 years old, the Zimbabwean was going to serve as a potential ace off the bench when the Rowdies needed something extra in attack.
On Saturday night, against the club that exchanged him for Antoine Hoppenot – a playoff legend in his own right at LouCity – Mkosana’s impact couldn’t have been greater.
Having scored two minutes after coming on in the 81st minute to halve the two-goal deficit the Rowdies faced, Mkosana delivered a decisive blow with the final touch of second-half stoppage time to send the team and the capacity crowd of 7,210 fans at Al Lang Stadium into wild celebrations having salvaged the season for the defending Eastern Conference title holders.
“It was crazy, because seconds left in the game, a long ball, [Forrest] Lasso, I knew he was going to win it,” Mkosana said of the goal, which arrived in the sixth minute of stoppage time. “I knew he was going to get it back to the far post and I just gambled on being there. I can’t really put it into words.”
Call it a knack, call it presence of mind.
Whatever you do, don’t call it luck.
After all, this is what the man named Lucky has been doing since he joined the Rowdies two-and-a-half years ago.
Tampa Bay Rowdies forward Lucky Mkosana wheels away after scoring the equalizer in second-half stoppage time in the Eastern Conference Final of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
Since his arrival in Tampa Bay, the now 34-year-old has recorded 14 goals in 43 appearances in Rowdies colors, 12 of which have come in 33 appearances as a substitute, and five of which have come in the USL Championship Playoffs. His second goal against LouCity on Saturday night was his 19th all-time as a substitute across the Championship’s regular season and playoffs – he found the net seven times as a sub for the Harrisburg City Islanders across two stints with the club – which moved him past former Charleston Battery and Richmond Kickers super-sub Heviel Cordoves for the most goals as a substitute in the league’s history.
Steevan Dos Santos’ goal in the 102nd minute may have provided the game-winner in extra time for the hosts, but the Cape Verde forward’s smile was as wide as could be talking about his match-saving teammate.
“If you saw, everyone is shooting inside the box and they’re blocking everything,” said Dos Santos. “Lucky shot it with his left foot, outside the box, straight in. How crazy is that? He’s unbelievable.”
The atmosphere at Al Lang Stadium this past weekend – dubbed by Tampa Bay Rays player Brett Phillips as one of the best sporting events he’d ever attended – is one the club will hope to carry over to Sunday’s 2021 USL Championship Final. The Rowdies will play host to Orange County SC at 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN | ESPN Deportes | SiriusXM FC), which claimed the Western Conference title in its own dramatic style after going to a penalty shootout against San Antonio FC, its second shootout win of the postseason.
After trailing by two goals against Louisville, the Rowdies’ perseverance and pressure throughout the second half provided a payoff that maybe hasn’t been seen at Al Lang Stadium since the club won a penalty shootout of its own in 2012 against the Minnesota Stars to claim the first league title of its modern era and second in the club’s overall history.
“The crowd fed off the team, and the team fed off the crowd, and we both needed each other,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “Tonight, I thought the players more than did their part, and then at the end when we needed them, they saw us through. I don’t know – people have been at this club a lot longer than me – but in my time I’d be surprised if there’s been a better night than that.”
As the side aims to become the first team to win the USL Championship Final after earning the best record in the regular season since the New York Red Bulls II team that featured current United States Men’s National Team players Tyler Adams and Aaron Long in 2016, Mkosana and his teammates are ready for whatever lies ahead.
“I feel like this team is special,” said Mkosana. “We trust the coaching staff, we trust each other, and everyone is accountable. We try to do our job and trust each other on the field and today was just a testimony of how strong we are together.”