The Tampa Bay Rowdies escaped from Al Lang Stadium with all three points in a shocking win over the Jacksonville Armada. In the first ever "Ponce de Leon Derby", Tampa Bay found themselves down 2-1 but fought back with two second half goals to secure three points and their first home win since August of last year. The Armada and the Rowdies rivalry sparked greatly on Saturday night, and it looks to be the best rivalry in the NASL. What made this even more special is that constantly throughout the match, you could hear both supporters groups, Ralph's Mob (Rowdies) and Section 904 (Armada) singing loud for their sides, a sight not seen often in the American second division. Along with the fan's atmosphere, the football played on the pitch was spectacular and enthralling.
The Jacksonville Armada came to town, bringing down a feisty contingent of traveling supporters to the Bay. It was hot in Tampa and that is how the match started off. Two minutes after the kick off, Zak Boggs received a through ball on the right flank. He whipped in a cross which found its way past Fabricio Ortiz, into the path of Maicon Santos, but he scuffed the shot and hit the left post, which caused an eruption of the Rowdies faithful. Tampa started off as the better side, as the attacking front were linking well in the early stages, and then they receieved a penalty. Ben Sweat, right back for Tampa, stormed down the left side of the pitch then sent a ball in to Maicon Santos who controlled and was allegedly tripped by defender Lucas Trejo. After seeing the replay, Santos looked to go down too easily, but in the end he converted the penalty past Armada goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo.
Then a minute later a beautiful shot by Lucas Scaglia was tipped over the bar by the Tampa keeper. On the ensuing corner, the Armada played intricate football on the top of the box, with three quick passes in succession. As the ball reached Alhassane Keita he was tackled in the box for an Armada penalty. Marcos Flores' attempt was saved, but he followed up and slotted the ball into the back of the net. The boys in blue were on the front foot in the match from this moment forward. Jacksonville pressured and and harrassed the Rowdies backline, controlling the match with the lion's share of possession. In the 32nd minute the deadlock was broken. Lucas Trejo sparked a counter, and played the ball to Pascal Millien on the right wing. Millien's shot deflected high into the air and a miscued header by Stefan Antonijevic allowed Jemal Johnson to react and score from eight yards out with his thigh, which sent the Armada supporters into euphoria.
Going into halftime the score was 2-1 to the traveling Jacksonville Armada. Quickly after the restart, the Rowdies attacked and Zak Boggs hit a shot from 12 yards out but it was saved by Gallardo. After Tampa started to get into the match in the second half, they equalized in the 59th minute in an unfortunate situation. Great build-up play by the Rowdies led to a pass into the middle. What could have been an easy clearance, led to an unconfident miscued jab at the ball by Fabricio Ortiz, and the ball fell to Martin Nunez, who curled in a great outswinging shot that beat Gallardo to his right. The Rowdies had momentum now, and the home fans backed their team strongly. Jacksonville had great opportunities on the attack but failed to convert on their best chances. Tampa Bay then took the lead in the 78th minute after a second goal from Maicon Santos.
Tampa Bay scored when Georgi Hristov crossed the ball in to an unmarked Santos, who headed into an empty net. Shawn Nicklaw was caught upfield which left the Armada defensive line helpless. Trejo was caught between a decision of marking Santos or another Rowdies player, and Ortiz had no one to mark. Too much space allowed Tampa to get that elusive third goal. After the third goal, waves and waves of Armada attacks flowed in during the last 10 minutes. Kamil Contofalsky, goalkeeper for Tampa, was replaced by Matt Pickens who came to the rescue for the Rowdies when he made three clutch saves at the end of the match in the middle of a chaotic mess of Armada and Rowdie players. How Jcksonville did not score is beyond this writer.
The Armada rolled out a new formation in their game on Saturday and it is still yet to be known as to whether this will be the new game plan for the squad or not. The Fleet deployed a 3-4-3 formation which worked out for them as they controlled the game. Tampa started in a 4-3-3, and this allowed Jacksonville to control the midfield. Also, Saturday was the first time we have seen Alhassane Keita, Pascal Millien, Jemal Johnson, and Marcos Flores all start together which enabled the attack to reach its full potential. Flores played his best football of the season because he was allowed to feature at central attacking midfield, his dominant role. The team accumulated 20 shots but lacked in finishing; only nine were on target. Tampa played a stout and tough defense on Saturday night though, barely ever allowing the Armada to work to the middle. In the end, defense prevailed.
The Rowdies go on the road to play Carolina this weekend, while Jacksonville go home for their opener at Community First Park. The Armada sit ninth in the table with only three points, having lost their last two matches. Tampa are (2-1-1) and are second in the table with seven points, only behind the New York Cosmos who are in first.