Tampa Bay Rowdies Advance to NASL Championship Series
The Tampa Bay Rowdies advanced to the NASL finals following their 3-3 second leg draw with the Carolina RailHawks Saturday night at Al Lang Stadium. With the Rowdies scoring a 2-1 win in Carolina last weekend, the Florida team advances on the basis of a 5-4 aggregate victory.
Colin Clarke’s RailHawks, who finished fourth in the NASL regular season standings but second in goals scored, came to Florida with a mission that, if not impossible, was difficult — outscoring the Rowdies at their home. And it looked, for some time, that the RailHawks would accomplish their mission.
Carolina striker Matt Luzunaris, on loan from USL PRO club Orlando City, opened the scoring in the game’s 14th minute. The 23-year-old Florida-born Luzunaris, who scored nine goals in 16 matches for Orlando City, got the ball past NASL 2012 Best XI goalkeeper Jeff Attinella moments after a laser shot from the Rowdies’ Luke Mulholland, another former USL PRO player, had hit the post at the other end of the field. Four minutes following Carolina’s opener, they jumped ahead of the Rowdies on aggregate as Ty Shipalane sniped a ball on a dreadful backpass miscommunication between JP Rodrigues and Attinella. It was Shipalane’s third goal of the playoffs.
The situation brightened for the Rowdies, though, when Mike Ambersley was clattered down just inside the RailHawks penalty box. Midfielder Shane Hill, Tampa Bay coach Ricky Hill’s son, stood up on the spot and placed a well-taken shot to convert the penalty and bring the Rowdies back 2-1, and even the aggregate score in the 39th minute. Another Rowdies’ opportunity from Carl Cort was nullified by an offsides call and the half ended 2-1 in Carolina’s favor.
The score remained the same for twenty minutes into the second half until Ambersley gave the 4,100 Rowdies faithful on hand more reason to cheer. The former Indiana University striker notched his goal with an assist from Mulholland to tie the score and regain the Rowdies’ aggregate lead. After a great defensive play in the 81st minute by the Rowdies’ Stuart Campbell, the Rowdies struck gold again when Mulholland knocked his own rebound off the crossbar into the Carolina net in the 84th minute. With a two goal aggregate lead late in the match, Rowdies fans could breathe easier, but two minutes later Nick Zimmerman pulled Carolina close when he converted a penalty kick. But no further RailHawks scores were forthcoming as time elapsed with the Tampa Bay Rowdies headed to the NASL playoff finals.
Clarke stated after the match, “It was a crushing defeat for us. We had our chances, especially in the first half, but Tampa Bay was able to regroup and capitalize on their chances. We really wanted to go back to Carolina with a final under our belt but I am proud of my team as they did everything possible to get the win.” The RailHawks put in a fine performance away from home, and actually outshot their hosts by a 23-16 margin after the two clubs were even in shots following the first 45 minutes. While the club’s season ends on a disappointing note, fans can point to an overall positive season, especially for a team that was in transition.
While the RailHawks season ends, the Rowdies continue in the finals, where they will meet the winner of Sunday’s San Antonio Scorpions -Minnesota Stars FC match, with the first leg kicking off the championship series beginning next Saturday and concluding with the second leg on October 27.