San Diego Loyal SC's 1-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies extended the club's perfect home record with four wins out of four to start the 2023 season. | Photo courtesy Ben Nichols / San Diego Loyal SC
As time ticked down in the first half between San Diego Loyal SC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, there had been little to choose between the two sides.
Clear chances had been limited as both midfields and defenses remained organized, with Tampa Bay in particular playing decisively in its defensive third.
And then, three minutes before the break arrived, so did the breakthrough.
Moving from the left flank across the top of the penalty area, the ball came to SD Loyal’s Adrien Perez in the right side of the penalty area, and when the new arrival saw a gap at the near post, his finish beat Rowdies goalkeeper Connor Sparrow for the California native’s first goal for the club.
It played out just as SD Loyal Head Coach Nate Miller had envisioned.
“I think in the first half we had a clear way of breaking them down, we did, and the goal was amazing,” said Miller. “I thought we were excellent in the first half.”
“I had tried to go outside a few times and it wasn’t working out,” said Perez. “I went on my strong foot, my left foot, and I tried to see if I could get a shot first post and it ended up working out.”
For the visitors, it was another difficult blow to absorb.
“Losing a goal right before halftime, no matter the fashion of how you lose it, is disappointing,” said Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins. “I think particularly the way the game had gone there wasn’t loads in it. Both teams had gotten into some good positions. They made us do a little bit more defending than we maybe made them do. Just a lack of quality on our part.”
It’s the way this season has seemed to go so far for both SD Loyal and the Rowdies. For San Diego, Perez’s goal proved the winner in a fourth consecutive home victory in the league to start the season as 16-year-old homegrown goalkeeper Duran Ferree posted his first shutout in the Championship. For Tampa Bay, it was another narrow defeat as the side failed to find the target, with Cal Jennings’ shot early in the second half that clipped the crossbar the closest the visitors came to finding the net.
Tampa Bay’s attacking struggles were countered by a solid closing 20-minute spell by the hosts, with Perez’s defensive work aided by Joe Corona and Camden Riley as the hosts contained the Rowdies as they pushed for an equalizer.
“There was a 15-minute period in the second half where we were totally dominant with the ball, and I think we could have extended that period of time with the ball,” said Miller. “I think we conceded the ball too early, and then we ended up defending deep in a 5-4-1, but you saw it at the end, they kept attacking the left and what Adrien did in one-v-one defending, Joe coming over the help, Cam [stepping up], I think we showed a lot of maturity in how we saw that game out. Even though that’s not how we want to be, we defended really well in the last 20 minutes.”
The Tampa Bay Rowdies have only one win in their first seven games of the Championship season after falling in San Diego. | Photo courtesy Ben Nichols / San Diego Loyal SC
The win moved SD Loyal into second place in the Western Conference ahead of its trip to face Seattle Sounders FC on Wednesday night in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, full of confidence ahead of a massive task.
The loss kept the Rowdies below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference, and still looking for solutions as it plays host to Houston Dynamo FC at Al Lang Stadium.
As fine as the margins were on Sunday afternoon be between success and failure, the trajectories both sides seem on are notable.
“There’s definitely been frustration because our expectations have been very high,” said Collins. “These guys have not known what losing’s been like too often and they expect to win, as we all have become accustomed to, but we’re also getting the harsh lesson of just what you have to do to win. Those really small percentages are important, and I think in this league this year more than ever.”
As the Rowdies look for answers, SD Loyal is flying high as it heads to the Pacific Northwest.
“We talk about never giving up, always going 100 percent, and I think that goes a long way,” said Perez. “It’s going to be a hard one [going to Seattle], it’s a good MLS team and we’re ready to fight, we’re ready to battle, we’re ready to give it all again. We just need to recover and get out there.”