Tampa Bay Rowdies goalkeeper Phil Breno provided the key moment for his side, denying a stoppage-time penalty kick before Tampa Bay took a dramatic late win at Memphis 901 FC. | Photo courtesy Eric Glemser / Memphis 901 FC
Not long after the final whistle, after being mobbed by his Tampa Bay Rowdies teammates after making the biggest save of his career and the club’s season, the emotion of the day overwhelmed Phil Breno.
It wasn’t solely because of what had just transpired – one of the most bizarre endings to a game in USL Championship Playoffs history, and the Rowdies’ advancement to a third consecutive Eastern Conference Final – but what the game and the day now represented to him.
“Halfway through this year, my grandfather passed away, and today is actually his birthday,” said Breno. “You know, I thought a lot about him during that moment beforehand, and I just knew that he was watching over me in that moment. I think I’d be more excited crying afterwards, but I was just more emotional for various reasons. It was just very poetic.”
Breno had little to do in terms of saves for much of Sunday’s Eastern Conference Semifinal of the 2022 USL Championship Playoffs presented by Hisense as the Rowdies and hosts Memphis 901 FC struggled to test either goalkeeper for most of the game. The 26-year-old, on loan from USL League One club Forward Madison FC and starting in the absence of the injured CJ Cochran, made the first save of the game at either end in the 85th minute, a fine low stop to keep out 901 FC’s Aaron Molloy shot toward the bottom right corner.
When Molloy stepped to the penalty spot in the fourth minute of stoppage time, however, Breno’s history with the Irish midfielder came to the fore. Teammates in Madison a season ago, Breno had gained an insight into where Molloy might be aiming, and after his Rowdies teammates had done their best to get in Molloy’s ear prior to the spot kick, he delivered a diving save to his right that kept Tampa Bay’s postseason alive.
“I took my PKs from him after practice last year, and I know that was kind of the sweet spot,” said Breno. “I also thought that he was going to go down the middle, but everybody was being a nuisance, hounding him. … It was maybe two minutes of downtime from when the foul happened to when he took the kick. So, I knew that there was just too much time for him to think and I knew he was going to go with his bread and butter.”
Breno’s save could have been enough to push the game to extra time. What happened next provided a remarkable twist for the visitors as Tampa Bay’s Dayonn Harris was adjudged to have been brought down in the Memphis’ penalty area just over a minute later. Leo Fernandes stepped up, and with the Rowdies’ first shot on target of the game in the ninth minute of stoppage time delivered where Molloy couldn’t and sent Tampa Bay on.
“When I was younger, I wanted moments like that, to send my team the finals or whatever,” said Fernandes, whose goal was his 20th of the season. “I think in those moments, you usually have to have a cool head. It’s just a penalty kick, but you have to be aware of the moment. I really just try to stay calm. I’ve been working a lot on the kicks, just trust my confidence.”
While Fernandes has been Tampa Bay’s talisman this season, the side’s celebrations with Breno after the victory had been secured spoke volumes about the mid-season arrival’s place in the locker room.
“Phil’s been unbelievable,” said Fernandes. “He’s fit right in with the group, and he really deserved that moment. I think he’s worked so hard, not only this year but his entire career. So, I think he really deserved that moment. That was unbelievable save, because Molloy struck a good pen. Phil just stepped up to it and made an unbelievable save.”
As the Rowdies head for a third consecutive Eastern Conference Final meeting with Louisville City FC next Saturday night at Lynn Family Stadium with their spirits at an year-long high.
“I think six months ago, we lose that game,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “Maybe even three months ago, we lose that game. The players have really come together, I’ve really felt a different spirit over the last two months. I’ve just seen a different focus as they’ve got closer to this time of year. They deserve it for so many reasons, not just for reacting to the penalty, but all through the game and the ups and downs we’ve had pretty much all season.”