As the rain poured down at Al Lang Stadium on Saturday night, Robert Hernandez was in the right place at the right time.
Hernandez's first goal of the season carried a lot of weight, lifting the Rowdies over the rival Fort Lauderdale Strikers in front of 6,851 fans in a very tight match, but was nothing more than a tap-in at the back post. Chaos in front of Strikers goalkeeper David Meves saw the ball pop over to Hernandez all by himself to score the game-winner in the 55th minute.
The victory puts the Rowdies into second place alone in the NASL Spring Season standings, three points behind the league-leading New York Cosmos with three games to go. It also puts Tampa Bay in control of the Coastal Cup, with six points, ahead of Fort Lauderdale's three and Jacksonville's zero.
"It wasn't just another game, because I knew the importance of this game in terms of the standings, in terms of being at home and in terms of knowing that it would be in front of a great crowd," Rowdies Head Coach Thomas Rongen said. "A win for us, to stay in the hunt with three games left, was the most important thing."
Forward Maicon Santos had taken a shot which Meves saved but couldn't control. It bounced to the 5-foot-5 Hernandez for the defining moment of the match.
“(Hernandez) can stretch defenses because of his dribble-penetration and speed,” Rongen said. “As a young player, he’s very gifted. There’s certain things I can’t teach, and his speed is sprinters speed. For him to get a goal was very cool. He’s not big, but he’s fast.”
For Hernandez, who had missed excellent scoring chances in previous games, getting his first goal for the Rowdies was huge.
“It was very emotional,” Hernandez said. “Now that I’ve scored, hopefully there are many more to come.”
Goalkeeper Matt Pickens didn't face a ton of shots from the Strikers, but was there at every time of need to keep his second-consecutive clean sheet in the win. Rongen credited the play of not only Pickens, but the four defenders in front of him and two defensive midfielders, for the fact that Tampa Bay’s goals-against-average has now dipped below one goal per game.
Pickens, too, shared the credit.
“We’re playing super, super well, collectively, on the defensive side of the ball,” Pickens said. “We’re hard to break down, we know each other’s tendencies and we keep our lines tight. We limit their chances, and when you do that, you keep shutouts. I’m just doing my part, but everyone is holding up to their responsibilities on the field. That’s huge.”
Up next, the Rowdies have a week off from NASL play, with their next match coming in the 102nd Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on May 27 against either the Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL) or West Virginia Chaos (USL PDL.) Tampa Bay’s next home NASL match is June 6 against FC Edmonton. Single-game tickets start at just $21, but three-game packs and prorated season tickets are still available. For more information, call (727)-222-2000 or click here.
Tampa Bay: Robert Hernandez - 55th minute (unassisted)
Fort Lauderdale: Aly Hassan - 85th minute
Rowdies (4-3-3): GK Matt Pickens; D Darnell King, Tamika Mkandawire, Stefan Antonijevic, Ben Sweat; M Marcelo Saragosa (c), Richard Menjivar, Georgi Hristov; F Robert Hernandez (Rich Balchan 83'), Maicon Santos (Juan Guerra 86'), Martin Núñez (Corey Hertzog 73')
Fort Lauderdale (4-4-2): GK David Meves; D Jordan Graye, Frankie Sanfilippo (c), Fabian Kling, Ivan Guerrero (Walter Ramirez 73'); M Dani Sanchez (Aly Hassan 73'), Marlon Freitas, Manny Gonzalez, PC; F Jose Angulo (Shawn Chin 57'), Stefano Pinho