ST. PETERSBURG — The Rowdies entered Saturday night’s United Soccer League playoff opener as the league’s hottest team. First-round opponent FC Cincinnati did nothing to cool them down.
Veteran midfielder Marcel Schafer scored two first-half goals, Georgi Hristov added a blast in the second half and the defense was stingy all night as No. 3 seed Tampa Bay advanced with a 3-0 win in front of 6,104 at Al Lang Stadium.
The Rowdies, who have an eight-game unbeaten streak, will play at home again on Oct. 28 against No. 7 seed New York Red Bulls II in an Eastern Conference semifinal. The Red Bulls, who are the defending USL champions, defeated No. 2 seed Charleston 4-0 on Saturday.
Tampa Bay improved its home unbeaten streak to 14 matches and is now 12-1-5 at Al Lang. Overall, the Rowdies are 15-7-11, but most importantly they are 1-0 in the USL’s one-and-done playoff system.
"There was certainly a playoff feel in the air, you could sense it," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said. "And I could sense it with the team all week. It all comes down to the way we start games and it was nice to start the way we did."
The Rowdies’ first scoring opportunity came in the eighth minute, and they didn’t waste it. Hristov chased down a long pass in the left corner and flicked a pass to Schafer. He ran onto the ball and angled a left-footer past goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt into the lower right corner of the net.
"It’s very good to start the night with an early goal like that," said Schafer, who spent the past ten 10 seasons with Vfl Wolfsburg in Germany before joining the Rowdies in March. "It’s makes things a little bit easier, especially for a team like us. When you score you have more space because the other team has to open up."
Schafer wasn’t done. In the 25th minute he took a pass nearly 30 yards from goal, took a quick touch and cranked another left-footed shot. This one also beat Hildebrandt into the lower right corner for a 2-0 lead.
"I enjoy assisting my teammates," Schafer said. "That means more to me than to score. But I can confidently say that if you give me too much space it could be dangerous."
Tampa Bay took three shots on goal in the first half and scored on two of them.
With Cincinnati (12-11-10) pushing up to score in the second half, the Rowdies had several more chances. Hristov converted in the 68th minute when he launched a shot from the corner of the 18-yard box. His shot caromed off the cross bar and over the goal line for a 3-0 lead.
From there on it was all about keeping Cincinnati away from the goal and preserving the lead. In the 78th minute, Rowdies keeper Matt Pickens made a diving save on a header to tip a sure goal over the net to keep the shutout.
"Defense was brilliant," Campbell said. "The back five and the goalie were absolutely immense tonight. I know they would probably deflect that and want to give credit to the guys in front of them, but they were incredible tonight."