Unlike the 18 previous shots the Rowdies sent towards Puerto Rico keeper Richard Martin that were either corralled by Martin or narrowly sailed wide and high, Sanfilippo’s crafty right-footed volley found the back of the net for the eventual game-winner of a 2-0 win. The victory is the first over Puerto Rico since the Rowdies secured their only other win in 11 matches over the Islanders way back on May 29, 2010.
“Yeah, my eyes lit up, and I just one-timed it,” said Sanfilippo, who scored once last season. “As a defender, you don’t get that many opportunities to score.”
Now, Sanfilippo just needs to work on his post-score celebration, which involved him running ecstatically towards mid-field where he met up with a teammate, stopped and performed what Sanfilippo described as a “pop-and-lock” move, delighting the 3,207 in attendance at Al Lang Stadium.
“Yeah, I just did a pop and lock and that was it,” Sanfilippo joked. “It’s something I’ve always done and I guess I just have to work on it a bit.”
Although Sanfilippo may be lacking in a Mario Balotelli-type swagger, his style of play on the pitch as the leader of the defense has helped Tampa Bay win six of the last seven matches to move into second place and within two points of first-place San Antonio — a 1-0 winner over Fort Lauderdale on Saturday.
Rowdies coach Ricky Hill has worked on having his defenders close the gap with the forwards over the past month and a half and Saturday’s contest revealed the most cohesiveness of the season.
After allowing four early shots within the first 10 minutes of the match, the Rowdies surrendered just six shots towards keeper Jeff Attinella, who had to make just two saves — a season low.
“We’re just getting more of a feel for each other, understanding each role,” Sanfilippo said. “We did a good job of covering for each other, talking, making sure we know where each other is. We just want to make Jeff’s life easier. I think this allows us to move the ball up the field better, getting up the field and taking less touches. The defense is getting out quicker and making it tougher on other teams to make transitions.”
While the Rowdies benefitted a bit from the absence of Puerto Rico starting forwards David Foley and leading scorer Nicholas Addlery because of injury, they also had to deal with not having Tampa Bay leading scorer Tsuyoshi Yoshitake, who was out due to a red-card suspension.
Playing on the front line with Ambersley and Daniel Antoniuk, Matt Clare filled in admirably for Yoshitake and nearly recorded two goals in the first half with fiercely struck shots towards Martin only to have them knocked away. The three forwards combined for 12 of the Rowdies’ 24 shots.
“I was pleased with how the balance of the front three worked,” Hill said. “We changed formation a couple of times just to give them a different look. I was pleased with the manner they went about their business.”
The tightness of the forward play along with the shut-down performance of the defense created the type of shape on the pitch Hill has envisioned all season.
“We’ve spent quite a lot of work, four or five weeks getting the team shape and trying to get defenders to condense the space more than we had done previously in the season,” Hill said. “I thought we had a lot of possessions early on in the season, in games where our defenders tended to stay back and admire some of the play being done by the forwards; instead of just condensing that space so that when we do lose the ball, there’s a little closer contact with each other and trying to get the ball back through right away. We’ve been working a lot in training and I’ve been trying to emphasize it a lot in meetings and at the moment they seem to have a nice balance almost telepathically.”
When Fafa Picault entered the game in the 70th minute, the 21-year-old forward quickly displayed his electric presence a minute and 25 seconds later, thus contributing to the Ricky Hill-cohesiveness.
On Sanfilippo’s goal, his run into the box while Ambersely was setting up on the left side of the field brought several defenders towards him — and away from the area where his teammate would find Ambersley’s pass.
A little under 13 minutes later, Picault gathered a clearing pass from the defense near the right side of mid-field and deftly laced a cross over to a wide-open Ambersley about five yards outside the penalty box. With a charging Martin heading towards him, Ambersley smartly chipped a shot over the lunging Puerto Rico keeper.
“The keeper thought he could get to it and he was kind of in no man’s land,” said Ambersley, who now has five goals and a team-leading six assists. “I chipped it over, and thought, ‘Oh no, its wide.’ But it trickled in.”
The second goal essentially sealed the match for the Rowdies and gave Tampa Bay a win over a nemesis. The Islanders had won six games and managed three ties over the past nine matches with the Rowdies.
“In recent games against Puerto Rico, we created opportunities, but we just weren’t able to convert,” Hill said. “I felt we started the game brightly. There were some situations where we were a bit sloppy coming out of the back, but we cleaned that up and overall, I’m very please with the intensity and focus we showed the rest of the match. I implored our team to continue what they were doing and the movement up front was good through out. We never looked stretched or in any serious trouble throughout the 90 minutes and we finally were able to break through with (Sanfilippo’s goal).”
The game was delayed an hour and 23 minutes due to a storm cell with lightning that passed through St. Petersburg.
Before the game finally got started, the Rowdies managed to make the most of their time waiting.
“It’s difficult to have to wait, but we have some characters in the locker room that can keep us going,” Ambersley said. “I eventually found myself taking a nap there for a bit as well.”
No pranks during your sleep?
“No, they know better or they’ll get it just as worse,” Ambersley said, in jest.
Once the all-clear signal was given, the teams were allowed 10 minutes to warm up before play began.
“The weather could have affected both teams,” Hill said. “I know we allowed some opportunities early that could have changed the nature of the game, including a point-blank shot by (Jonathan) Fana.”
The Rowdies have won four consecutive games at home.
With Puerto Rico missing Nicholas Addlery, its team-leader in goals (6), the Rowdies focused on making sure Jonathan Fana could not find room to create. Fana is tied for second in the league with a team-high five assists and helped create a goal in the Islanders’ 2-0 victory over the Rowdies on June 9th in Bayamon.
“We know what Puerto Rico likes to do,” Ambersley said. “They like to bypass their midfield and play it up to their big target forward and have Fana run off of them and I think they caught us off guard a little bit in the first half. They were finding Fana with space and he was doing some damage, but we solved that and when you stop Fana and when Addlery isn’t playing, that’s a big part of their team and that allowed us to put up a zero.”
On making a clear pass to Sanfilippo for the goal
“I knew if I didn’t get it to him, I’d hear about it later.”
San Filippo —
When asked if the team was satisfied with being in second place:
“We just need to keep on winning and try and take the championship.”
Home vs. FC Edmonton, Saturday, July 28, 7:30 p.m. kickoff
TEAM GP W T L GF GA GD PTS HOME AWAY
San Antonio 17 9 5 3 25 15 10 32 (6 - 2 - 1) (3 - 3 - 2)
Tampa Bay 18 9 3 6 25 21 4 30 (6 - 2 - 1) (3 - 1 - 5)
Puerto Rico 18 8 4 6 24 19 5 28 (6 - 2 - 1) (2 - 2 - 5)
Minnesota 18 7 5 6 25 24 1 26 (5 - 1 - 3) (2 - 4 - 3)
Carolina 17 6 6 5 29 26 3 24 (5 - 4 - 1) (1 - 2 - 4)
Fort Lauderdale 19 6 6 7 27 31 -4 24 (5 - 3 - 1) (1 - 3 - 6)
FC Edmonton 17 4 4 9 15 19 -4 16 (2 - 2 - 3) (2 - 2 - 6)
Atlanta 18 3 5 10 20 35 -15 14 (1 - 3 - 5) (2 - 2 - 5)