USL Championship: Rowdies and Rising finally meet, and it felt like a 'cup final'

Six and a half months later, the Tampa Bay Rowdies got to host the Phoenix Rising.

The 2020 USL Championship conference winners were supposed to play off for the league title on Nov. 1 at at Al Lang Stadium, but the game was cancelled due to positive COVID-19 tests on the Rowdies.

The USL made sure to schedule the teams early in the 2021 season -- and on ESPN2 -- and Saturday's match, won by the Rowdies, 2-1, had the fell of -- well -- a cup final.

“It had a cup final feel because of the uniqueness of the opponents, said Rowdies coach Neill Collins, "and the backstory."

The Rowdies appeared to have the game in hand when Cape Verdean Steevan Dos Santos put them ahead 2-0 in the 61st minute, but Spaniard Santi Moar scored eight minutes later to reduce the lead in half.

“Those last 20 minutes were played end to end full of passion, energy, emotion," said Collins. "That’s what everyone wants to see. You don’t want to see a soulless stadium, players going through the motions. Both fans will be proud of their teams. It was a different game compared to what we’ve had in the past."

The game was the Rowdies' third of the season -- all wins and all at homel before fans. The crowd of 2,355 was their largest of the season.

May 15 in St. Petersburg, Florida
Tampa Bay 2 Phoenix 1. Goals: Own goal 4, Dos Santos 61; Moar 68.
Tampa Bay -- Louro; Scarlett, Lasso, Guillen; Antley, Wyke, Hilton, Fernandes; Dos Santos (Adebayo-Smith 88), Steinberger, Guenzatti (Dalgaard, 88).
Phoenix -- Lundt; King (Billingsley 65), Musa, Adewole, Flood (Saydee 78); Lambert, Quinn, Bakero (Rodriguez 65); Moar, Dadashov, Asante.
Att.: 2,355.
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