Friday, November 24, 2017
Sports

Rowdies close in on playoff spot

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ST. PETERSBURG — It went beyond physical to one of their key players getting injured and possibly out for the season due to the aggressiveness of the opponent's tackles.

The Rowdies' 2-2 draw at Bethlehem on Wednesday was the kind of game that would invoke easy recall of bad feelings, even if a rematch was not for another six months.

Conveniently enough, it will end up being just three days.

Tampa Bay plays the Steel tonight. And the Rowdies will have more than just the motivation of having lost midfielder Michael Nanchoff to a nasty ankle injury.

A win clinches a playoff spot, something Tampa Bay hasn't done in five years.

"That's what we're aiming for. We want to get that playoff spot," defender Darnell King said. "We know what this team (Bethlehem) is about now, and we're coming in to expect to win."

Bethlehem committed 20 fouls Wednesday, compared to 11 for Tampa Bay. The one that has Nanchoff officially "week-to-week" required an air cast to be applied on the field: Bethlehem's Cory Burke charged full speed into Nanchoff, whose legs buckled from the impact.

Burke, who received a yellow card, stayed in the game to score Bethlehem's first goal early in the second half. Tampa Bay went back on top as Hunter Gorskie, a defender acquired a month after the Rowdies lost standout Damian Lowe to a Norwegian team, continued his scoring prowess with a finish off Marcel Schafer's free kick.

Gorskie had also scored in his home debut last Saturday, and it stood up as the lone goal of a 1-0 win over Charlotte that has a top-two finish still possible for the Rowdies. He has three goals in four matches.

Bethlehem's Seku Conneh scored the tying goal late giving both teams one point.

The inability to hold on for the three points in Pennsylvania means the Rowdies can pretty much forget catching first-place Louisville (55 points), even though it was upset by Toronto 1-0 Wednesday. Fourth-place Tampa Bay (12-7-9, 45 points) still has the No. 2 spot — and potential homefield through the USL's Eastern Conference semifinals — in its sights. The Rowdies have at least a game in hand on the other teams in front of them (Charlotte 48, Charleston 47).

Only fifth-place Rochester (43) could knock the Rowdies out of the top four and a first-round playoff game at home.

That will all get sorted out across the final four regular-season games. For now, Tampa Bay is happy with the chance to clinch a spot in the field, especially at home. More than 7,000 attended last week's victory at Al Lang Stadium.

"I've been here a long time, and to see that type of crowd for a regular-season game and generate that atmosphere, really was priceless to the players," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said.

"And (tonight's) an even bigger game. I know for a fact the fans are going to be right up for it. It's a big opportunity to clinch a place in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. We're really looking forward to it."

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