“Tonight, for whatever reason, whether it had to do with the Fourth of July and everyone was in a festive mood because of the fireworks, but we just seemed to lull into the game,” Hill said. “I wanted us to come out like a firecracker — excuse the pun, metaphor. I want us to come out on the front foot and put pressure on the other team and make them defend for their lives early on in the game and make it ugly. The way we’ve won these games in recent times has been by starting well and playing directly and then when the game starts opening up then having the room to start passing and thread balls through. We didn’t start out with any tempo tonight and credit to Fort Lauderdale. They did and they looked threatening and they looked dangerous on the counterattack.”
Fafa Picault, who missed the first month of the regular season with a broken foot, helped put the Rowdies on the board in the 29th minute when he found Mike Ambersley in the box. Ambersley quickly gathered it with his right and flicked it with his left foot past Strikers’ keeper Matt Glaeser. Ambersley pretty much owns Fort Lauderdale, having scored for the fifth time against the in-state rival and assisting on four other goals.
“I just feel like I’m playing really well now and it fortunately has carried over to the team’s success as well,” Ambersley said.
Despite allowing the opposition to score first in the opening half for the third time in the last four games, the Rowdies once again demonstrated their moxie for a brilliant turnaround, spurred on by a feisty halftime speech by Hill.
“He gave us a few choice words to say the least, but we also knew we had to sharpen things up and we did,” Ambersley said.
In what has become routine for the Rowdies, forward Tsuyoshi Yoshitake exhibited star quality of play early in the second half when he received a pass from Daniel Antoniuk in the center of the field just between the mid-line and the top of the penalty box, zipped past a defender and sliced a low liner with the outside of his right foot past Glaeser to give the Rowdies a one-goal lead they would not relinquish.
Yoshitake scored for the fourth game in a row and has five goals during that period. The last Tampa Bay player to have as many goals in a row was Aaron King in five consecutive games last season.
“The second goal was fantastically created (Antoniuk) comes in off the bench and his first touch, he’s got the presence of mind to see someone is in a better position than he is and to play a lovely second touched pass was well timed into Yoshi,” Hill said. “That finish was exceptional. Yoshi has shown he has the ability to score at any standard of the game at any time, supreme confidence. It shows a player with supreme confidence and belief that he’s going to score anytime he touches the ball.”
Yoshitake, who received the NASL Offensive Player of the Week two weeks in a row after his return from a chest injury a few weeks ago, has proven to be one of the best players in the league.
“It’s not just by chance that Yoshi is finishing the way he is,” Hill said. “He stays behind after training and works extra every day with a bag of balls, shooting from different angles and on different runs. The thing I always say to the players is it’s about what you do during the week and it transfers over to how you play in the game and it has been shown in Yoshi’s play.”
Yoshitake says the guidance of countryman Takuya Yamada — the longest tenured member of the Rowdies — has helped him improve in every facet this season.
“He’s always teaching me how to be better,” said Yoshitake, who had 18 starts and played in 25 games last season. “I appreciate everything he has done for me and I appreciate the whole team support. I’m even more pleased the team has won four games in a row.”
After the Rowdies missed several other pinpoint opportunities following Yoshitake’s game-changer, Antoniuk secured the three points in the standings with his fourth goal of the season with a score off an assist from Ambersley in the 84th minute.
With Puerto Rico’s loss to Minnesota on Wednesday, the Rowdies move into a tie for second-place with 24 points in the NASL standings. After securing nine points on the three-game homestand, the players get a much-needed break with the next contest coming on July 12th on the road at Minnesota.
Becoming the best: The Rowdies gradually have evolved into a team equipped with supremely skilled players. In watching the club the first couple of years since its rebirth in 2010, I typically would come away from games shaking my head, wondering to myself if a NASL squad could produce top-notch play on the pitch. This season, under the guidance of Hill, the team has produced the type of performance worthy of a look by the soccer fan who may be unsure of what Tampa Bay has to offer and by the casual fan quickly dismissing the team as minor league. The Rowdies might play just 15 blocks away from the professional sports big boy in town, but they have quietly manufactured a winning style thanks to budding stars like Yoshitake, Ambersley, Picault and Countryside High-grad goalkeeper Jeff Attinella.
In addition to veteran players like Yoshitake and Ambersley, the 21-year-old Picault is a hidden gem and could soon be playing in the MLS or possibly overseas. A former member of the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team, the Miami-native of Haitian descent has steadily improved since his return on June 9th.
“In flashes tonight, he’s shown he’s an immense talent,” Hill said. “Now, I want those flashes to be more regular and for longer periods. I had a few words with Fafa at halftime and what I expect of him and like all the players we were on our heels in the first period, We weren’t anticipating very well from the get-go of the game. In the second half, he addressed that. He looked to threaten. Obviously, he produced a bit of quality in the 37th minute for (Ambersely). That’s what he’s capable of doing. He’s capable of doing it regularly, so for me and for him and for all the fans I’d like to see that more often than we what we have currently. But it’s new to him. He missed the first month of preseason and the next month after we started through because of the broken foot so he’s probably getting his rhythm now and his match fitness so I’m hoping that will help with his confidence.”
Quotable: Rowdies coach Ricky Hill On the team handling success and building upon it
“One thing we can guarantee every game is that we play with intensity play with tempo and do the simple things well. We may not be able to achieve all those objectives because on certain days players are going to be slightly below performance, the team is going to be slightly below as a group. I want us to start with an urgency and a purpose and we can’t allow them to feel comfortable and that’s not really us but to the credit to the players is they addressed that in the second period and that was more like I expect us to approach every game. Now we’re on that four-game win streak which is excellent, but we’re not going to get carried away. We know in this league anyone is capable of beating anyone else. The standard of the league has improved since last year. We have a hard road trip next week so it’s no time for us to rest on our laurels. The boys will get a mini-break now to rest up, get recharged and we will come back in on Monday with a game plan to go to Minnesota and Edmonton and come back with points.”
YOSHI BATTLES THE STRIKERS: Forward and July 4 scorer Tsuyoshi Yoshitake received the NASL Offensive Player of the Week two weeks in a row after his return from a chest injury.
Rowdies 3, Fort Lauderdale 1: Playing in front of a record home crowd of 4,710 at Al Lang Stadium, the Rowdies came out with “a bit of a lull,” as Tampa Bay coach Ricky Hill so eloquently described after the team’s fourth straight victory. The visitors were aggressive from the opening whistle, nearly registering two goals in the first ten minutes until finally tallying a goal by Andy Herron in the 18th minute.
Spurred on by another boisterous showing by the Ralph’s Mob — the Rowdies exuberant fan group, Tampa Bay began playing like a team worthy of the longest winning streak in team history (since the rebirth).