Date: Saturday September 16, 2023
Kickoff Time: 8:30 pm EST at Toyota Field in San Antonio, TX
Records: Tampa Bay Rowdies (53 pts 16W-5D-7L); San Antonio FC (50 pts 13W-11D-5L)
Standings: The Rowdies are 2nd in the East and San Antone are 2nd in the West
After an incredible eight-day stretch, both on and off the field, the Rowdies have another tough away game coming up. The boys will fly out to Texas to take on last year’s Championship Champions, San Antonio FC! Two players on 14 goals will line up against each other. To see who wins, come down to Barriehaus off the Ybor strip for another RBLR Watch Party!
Three games in eight days. Where do we stand now?
In short, exactly where they were before. While the Rowdies still have one game in hand over the top team in the East, their place in the standings hasn’t changed in a while. The nuances of the schedule the league laid out means the club have both more matches at the end of the year, and tougher ones all bunched up. This obviously complicates things.
After starting their eight days with a tougher-than-expected and comeback win over Hartford, the Rowdies wrestled with scheduling to get to Memphis, Tennessee, for their second game on Wednesday. After going ahead first – and second – it was again the home team that fought back to win it late. The Green and Gold flew home with their tails between their legs; but, they turned things back around to beat a stubborn and storied side in Louisville City on Saturday.
If all that wasn’t enough to make your head spin, head coach Nicky Law was away from the side for both the Memphis and Louisville City games. The club’s Twitter account has listed personal reasons, while the Unused Substitutes podcast is reporting this being down to visa issues. Finally, Stuart Dobson was sent off late in the Memphis game for arguing with the referee. Phew!
Between the away game on Wednesday and the home game on Saturday, a marked shift played out on the field. Likely, this can be chalked up to a club working through a hard schedule and doing their best to make it out alive. They might have done so with two textbook Route 1 Football goals. Unfortunately, the lack of intensity, noted by both Jordan Doherty and Cal Jennings in the postgame press conference on Saturday, was not enough to see the boys past Memphis.
They’d held a 2-1 lead late into the game when several Memphis substitutes combined to start firing in some shots. On one of the late chances created, Rashawn Dally found Jeremy Kelly unmarked at the back post. His header leveled the game on 2. Seemingly content with a point, the Rowdies continued to sit back and absorb pressure like they had all game.
However, the local team had different ideas. After a clearance in stoppage time, Dayonn Harris sprinted away with the ball, just to be hacked down by a Memphis defender. Dobson argued with the referee and earned his first yellow card. Between that and the minute that followed, fans can only speculate as to what happened, because Dobbo was given his marching orders. He would miss the crucial next few minutes.
In that time, Memphis won a penalty off a clumsy challenge from Forrest Lasso. The beleaguered defender unfortunately was not done. After the original attempt from the spot was saved by Connor Sparrow, Aaron Molloy tried to follow his shot and caught the ball in the air. It might have failed to go in; but, Lasso then bundled it into the back of the net. It ended 3-2.
The Louisville City game provided a much needed antidote to all this frustration, as the team got back to their usual selves. Jordan Doherty has continued to line up at the back with the return of Lewis Hilton. Yann Ekra and Jake Areman also came back, one of those combining to help Cal Jennings find the back of the net vs. the Purple enemies. If not for Cal, they might have thrown this game away, too, as LouCity found an equalizer right after the halftime whistle.
The aforementioned returnees might be even more important after Saturday. Despite taking all three points in a better performance, two stalwarts went down injured. Conner Antley was stamped on – to no great bother of the referee – and eventually had to be subbed off. Additionally, following the start of the second half, Aaron Guillen seemed to pull his hamstring on the play from which LouCity scored. If either or both of those two are out longer, god help Tampa Bay.
Are San Antonio as good as last year?
While their record suggests they have had a tougher go of it, San Antonio still look absolutely deadly in the USL. They have one of the league’s top scorers, one of the league’s top helpers, and certainly one of the league’s best defenses to back it all up. There should be few if any problems with injuries, looking at the size of their squad as well.
Lining up almost exclusively in a 5-3-2 formation, their defense-first policy has San Antonio not only sitting pretty out west, but has organized the team into a recognizable system for at least two straight years now. Players know their roles and responsibilities. If someone, for any reason, isn’t living up to that, they have a formidable replacement on hand.
While Tampa Bay Rowdie Leo Fernandes (currently suffering from an Achilles tendon tear) won the USL MVP in 2022, it was San Antonio who picked up the Goalkeeper and Defender of the Year awards. Jordan Farr and Mitch Taintor, respectively, have continued their good form and fortune into 2023. Their odds of winning those awards again likely depend on when the season ends for the team.
Starting with their ability to absorb pressure and fend off shots – while frequently losing on the possession metrics – San Antone will try to break with speed and get the ball up to their attackers as quickly as possible. It has proved both dangerous and replicable, with many of the same players showing up in different stats metrics near the top.
Midfielder Jorge Hernandez has created both the most Big Chances and the most Chances, at least according to FotMob. To wit, he leads his team with nine assists all year. Most of those helpers go to the feet of Tani Oluwaseyi and fellow midfielder Rida Zouhir. While Zouhir has converted eight opportunities into goals, Oluwaseyi has 14 on the season! This puts him level in the league standings with Cal Jennings and Manuel Arteaga of Phoenix.
The Rowdies have been known for years for their ability to defend. In 2023, however, there have been notable weaknesses on the backline. Combine this with the fact that the two speediest defensive options are likely to be out of this game in Texas and fans might be taking a big gulp every time San Antonio digs the ball out with a bit of room to run.
Forrest Lasso, a former USL Defender of the Year, hasn’t necessarily looked his best this season. Notable among his recent performances is his third penalty conceded this year, as well as an own goal that followed it all within a minute. Freddy Kleemann as well has a reputation for being a sturdy and stable presence; but, pace is not his strong suit. They’ll both have to be as focused as possible to stand up to San Antonio’s MLS loanees, Oluwaseyi and Zouhir.
Behind Enemy Lines with Special Guest: PuroSAFC @PuroSAFC
San Antonio is currently in second place in the West. We entered the season with high hopes: lots of returning starters from the record setting USL Championship team. Our predictions on the pod, however, were fewer points this year, due to a target on our back and the inevitable complacency of being the champs. Despite our team mantra of Mentality Monsters, we’ve seen some downturn in 2023: leads lost and surprising upsets to last place teams. Goalkeeper Jordan Farr, for instance, was all league last year; but, this year he has had some head-scratching moments. Other key players have missed time with injury or just looked a step behind the pace – perhaps due to lineup turnover.
Expectations have been raised, however, as we have added some new loanees with good pedigree: Tani Oluwaseyi from Minnesota and Rida Zouhir from Montreal, plus returning starters from previous years, Santiago Patiño and Nathan. We have yet to click; but, this is easily the most talented lineup the team has ever had. If we gel as a team, another championship will be the expectation. If not, we have the potential to both beat or lose to any team in the league.
I expect this game to look a lot like our game at home against Pittsburgh two weeks ago: a tight contest between two of the best teams in the USL. There’s loads of talent in both squads. These are the top scoring squads in the league, as you probably know, so fireworks could ensue if someone scores early.
Score Predictions from the RBLR Rowdies Podcast:
Carlos Rueda: 2-1 W
James Knowles: 2-2 Draw
Yurika Wheeler: 1-1 Draw
Special Guest: @kacy_courtney 1-1 Draw