ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Cinderella story was too good to be true.
On Saturday night, the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rowdies took full advantage of a boisterous home crowd and a controversial second half red card to beat FC Tulsa 6-2 in the USL Championship Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. While the scoreline might be unfair to Tulsa as three of the Rowdies six goals came in the final minute plus stoppage of the match, Tampa Bay was simply the better team throughout the night and proved why it earned the league's best regular season record in 2021.
FC Tulsa's defense held firm until Tampa opened the scoring in the 21' minute on a low driven cross into the box. The ball fell to a sliding Sebastian Guenzatti who scrambled it into the net past Austin Wormell for his 22nd goal of the season.
It took more than 40 minutes for FC Tulsa to register a shot, but it nearly was the equalizer. After multiple bodies hit the turf without a whistle, Matt Sheldon ended up the ball at his feet outside the box and dribbled left. His shot looked destined for the left side of the net, but it nicked a Rowdies defender and bounced just wide of the post.
Only a minute into the second half, the Rowdies took the wind out of Tulsa's sails with a second goal. After turning FC Tulsa over in the midfield, the Rowdies jumped into the attack and dos Santos took a shot from a tough angle on the right side of the box. His strike caromed off Kembo Kibato and over Wormell to make it a 2-0 scoreline.
A third goal off a set piece put the Rowdies up 3-0, and the match appeared in hand until Joaquín Rivas started a comeback bid. The Salvadoran striker took a pass from Mo Jadama and picked out the bottom corner of the net past a diving Evan Louro for the Rowdies. It was the second straight match with a goal for Rivas after ending a 16-match scoreless streak last weekend.
Any hope for a comeback was squashed when second half substitute Eric Bird was hit with two questionable yellow cards in a 10-minute span. Bird was playing in his first match since injuring his knee on Oct. 2, but his return was short-lived after being sent off in the 72' minute.
The final minutes of the match opened up as the Rowdies took advantage of FC Tulsa being down a man. The Rowdies added three goals from the 89' minute on as FC Tulsa threw everything forward with its season on the line.
In the midst of the Rowdies offensive barrage, Darío Suárez added a second for Tulsa on a shot from nearly 30 yards out that found the top of the netting. While the goal came in a 6-2 loss, it was one of the best goals scored by a Tulsa player this season.
FC Tulsa's 2021 season comes to a close with the defeat. The team recorded the best regular season record and most points in franchise history.
Here are three takeaways from the season-ending defeat.
1) Rivas Resumes Scoring Form
Joaquín Rivas has a long drought between goals for FC Tulsa, going from June 16 to October 30 without a USL Championship goal, an 18-match stretch. However, Rivas found his form again to end the season with goals in each of his final two matches. That could be important for El Salvador in upcoming World Cup qualifiers as La Selecta continues its 2022 World Cup bid.
2) Bird Return Marred by Red Card
Midfielder Eric Bird spent the majority of the month of October on the sideline after suffering what was initially feared to be a season-ending knee injury in the match against Memphis on Oct. 2.. After spending a month rehabbing the injury in an effort to return to the field, Bird was subbed into tonight's match in the 55' minute, but it was a short return after receiving a second yellow in the 72' minute. While showing a card is ultimately up to the judgment of the referee, neither foul seemed to warrant a yellow card in a match that at that point was still up for grabs.
3) Super Darío Saves Best for Last
While it came in defeat, Suárez's stunning strike for FC Tulsa's second goal was one for the highlight reel. He created space with a few step-overs before unleashing a nearly 30-yard volley that found the top of the goal. It was the 10th goals of the season for Suárez and his 18th goal over two seasons in Tulsa. That's the most goals over the last two years for any player in a Tulsa uniform.
The 2022 season will be here next Spring, and FC Tulsa will have a busy offseason, full of roster decisions, player signings, schedule announcements and community events. Make sure you are following the club on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and have downloaded the Official FC Tulsa app to your smart phone.