Game: Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Bethlehem Steel FC
Date: Saturday, September 30th
Time: 7:30 p.m. Eastern, 6:30 p.m. Central, 4:30 p.m. Pacific, 11:30 p.m. UTC
Venue: Al Lang Stadium (Saint Petersburg, Fla.)
Referees: REF: GUIDO GONZALES JR AR1: Albert Escovar AR2: Madzid Coric 4TH: Natalie Simon
After a very successful weekend match that saw Bethlehem practically stamp their playoff ticket against the Hounds, they had some quick turnaround in a rescheduled Wednesday match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. After playing (with all respect to the brand of the New York Cosmos) the most storied franchise in US Soccer history for the first time, Steel get to go to St. Petersburg for the first time as well.
First, let’s get a little week in review. Bethlehem entered the third and final match of the season against Pittsburgh with a lot at stake. Both teams were tied on points, with the winner (assuming there was one) having an 86% chance of being postseason bound. Bethlehem Steel came out on fire. Two goals in eight minutes saw Steel take an early lead and while the Hounds got back in the match with a Corey Hertzog penalty, Bethlehem hung on to get the win. What stuck out to me was after one of his best matches, Adam Najem said it was on him to continue to grow as a player and have that kind of output every time out.
Fast forward to an ungodly hot and humid game against the Rowdies four days ago. For a team that has had, uh, trouble against “playoff” teams, Bethlehem could take advantage of a Rowdies team that has been quizzically poor on the road. That being said a late penalty given up by Aaron Jones and converted by Georgi Hristov gave the Floridian side a 1-0 lead right before the break. Surely Steel would do the same song and dance and be unable to find the net in spite of creating ample chances right?
Cory Burke is a man possessed. After getting USL Team of the Week honors for his two goal performance against Pittsburgh, he got a crucial goal in the opening minutes of the second half against Tampa Bay. Matt Real served up a beautiful through ball and Burke was just able to slide it past the oncoming keeper. Tie game.
Tampa Bay got a set piece from 22-23 yards and whipped the ball in. Clean header. 2-1 Rowdies. No shame in a hard battle for a loss, right? Besides the Rowdies have plenty of class with guys like Martin Paterson, Joe Cole, Alex Morrell and Hristov. Well, hold on. Remember Adam Najem mentioning how he wants to start bringing it every night? He just gets enough on a pass out to Seku Conneh, who goes it himself (despite a good run from Cory Burke to the far post) and slots home tying the game and giving Steel a massive draw against the Rowdies. Bethlehem take a draw in a bizarre game with a bad kick off time for anyone with a full time job and now focus on their next opponent. Who just so happen to be the Rowdies, this time in St. Pete.
Let’s look at the scenarios we have coming into this weekend. Winning here would keep Steel in seventh, which would be good enough for a date to the dance. Another draw doesn’t hurt, but with Orlando City B sitting on 39 points as well (they have nine wins to Steel’s eleven, which is the first tie breaker) Bethlehem would need some help from the Richmond Kickers tomorrow. New York Red Bulls II (38 points, 11 wins) are also a big threat, but they have a tricky matchup against Pittsburgh this afternoon. Ideally we would see a Steel win/OCB loss/Hounds win to separate Bethlehem from the pack and muddy up that 8th place spot a bit more.
So how do we get there? Bethlehem had success with possession against the Rowdies, but they were able to find good angles and make the wide balls into the middle count. They also have a bit more pace as a whole than Tampa and the travel is going to impact both teams so I won’t bring it up besides that. What this comes down to is Bethlehem get a chance to make a two pronged statement: We can play against the big clubs and we are a playoff caliber team. I don’t doubt the second part of that, and I’m coming around on the first part. Points against Tampa Bay tonight will cement that statement.