Rowdies renew rivalry with Louisville City FC

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ST. PETERSBURG — Down 2-0 with less than 10 minutes in regulation to play in last year’s Eastern Conference final, the Tampa Bay Rowdies desperately needed something to go their way. Fortunately, they had Lucky.

Not even two minutes after coming in as a substitute, Lucky Mkosana unleashed a low drive from distance to give the Rowdies a lifeline. Mkosana then sent Al Lang Stadium into a frenzy in the 96th minute with a point-blank header to equalize. The Rowdies scored again in extra time, downing Louisville City FC in the conference final for a second straight year.

It was the type of moment that builds rivalries. Even Sports Illustrated took notice, ranking the comeback as one of the top-20 moments of the year in American soccer. Sunday night at Al Lang, the clubs will meet for first time since that November playoff clash. (The game originally was scheduled for Saturday, but travel delays stemming from a midweek game in Tulsa warranted a date change.)

“We feel like we owe Tampa something,” Louisville defender Sean Totsch said in an interview posted to the club’s website Thursday. “This is obviously the first time we’ve seen them since last year, so we’re ready to get down there and get back at them. These are things we don’t forget about.”

Louisville (8-2-3, 27 points) responded to last year’s disappointment with a 13-match unbeaten run to start 2022. Their young star forward, Wilson Harris, leads the conference with seven goals. After recent losses to LA Galaxy II and Monterey Bay, two of the three worst teams in the Western Conference, Louisville responded with a 4-1-win over FC Tulsa last Saturday to stay atop the East.

Louisville was bolstered by the return of Cameron Lancaster, who scored twice in his first start of 2022. The former Tottenham Hotspur player has scored 73 USL Championship goals, good for third on the league’s all-time scoring charts.

Meanwhile, the Rowdies (5-3-5, 20 points) sit fifth in the East as Neill Collins’ team continues to climb back into contention. After securing just five points out of a possible 15 in April, Tampa Bay won twice before drawing 1-1 in Tulsa on Wednesday.

The Rowdies lead the conference in draws. Turn a few more of those into wins, and they would be at the top of the league.

“When you look at the ties we’ve had this year, we’ve had too many ties, but I think the performances in three or four of the five deserved victories,” Collins said Wednesday. “Now, we have to look at maybe why that is, but I think it’s a fine line. ... These goals will come.”

Most of this season’s goals have come from new addition Jake LaCava, who is tied for second in the East with six. He is one of several fresh faces in Sunday’s rivalry. Only five players who started last year’s conference final made Collins’ starting 11 against Tulsa. Thomas Vancaeyezeele played all 90 minutes after being acquired from Birmingham Legion FC last week.

Mkosana came off the bench Wednesday but could not deliver his trademark heroics. He looked destined to score off a corner in stoppage time, but his header was denied by the right post.

“He’s not going to score every chance as much as people might think he will,” Collins said.

The Rowdies head coach isn’t pushing the panic button. It’s only May. But Totsch said Louisville is expecting a playoff-like atmosphere.

“They’re a good team, and one of those teams that where they are now doesn’t show where they’ll be at the end of the year,” he said. “They’re a talented team, they’ve got a lot of experience and we expect nothing but the highest level and intensity like a conference final.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.