ST. PETERSBURG — Two sides that wanted a win in the worst way, if for different reasons, made for vastly entertaining soccer Wednesday night.
Tampa Bay clinched its first postseason berth in five years with a 3-2 win over visiting New York before an announced crowd of 5,260 at Al Lang Stadium. It was the Rowdies' regular-season home finale as they took a strong step to securing at least one home playoff game, if not more.
Marcel Schafer was a menace, scoring twice for Tampa Bay while assisting on the other goal.
After Wednesday's win, the Rowdies (13-7-10, 49 points) are in second place in the USL's Eastern Conference, one point up on both Charleston and Charlotte, all with two games remaining. Louisville (56 points) has clinched the No. 1 seed, but the No. 2 spot means homefield through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
"It's a great achievement, to book their place in the playoffs with two games to go, they've done great," said coach Stuart Campbell, a player-coach on the 2012 squad that was the last Rowdies team to make the playoffs. "The players deserve enormous amounts of praise for that. It's been too long for a team like the Rowdies to be out of the playoffs for that amount of time."
The Rowdies came in fairly secured of a playoff spot with three matches left but wanted to clinch at home. New York was anything but safe for one of the East's eight playoff berths and left in the final spot, one point up on Bethlehem with a match remaining between the two.
The Red Bulls II pressed forward from the opening kick and were rewarded 16 minutes in when Vincent Bezecourt passed to Stefano Bonomo, who scored for a 1-0 lead.
But the Rowdies answered, threefold, the rest of the half, with Schafer doing much of the damage. After intercepting a New York pass near midfield, Schafer passed to Joe Cole, who scored in the 18th minute.
Schafer scored the next two goals; the first with assistance from Georgi Hristov, who passed to Schafer in tight space for a 2-1 lead in the 25th minute. Hristov, Tampa Bay's leading scorer (11 goals), returned to the lineup after a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation.
It was all Schafer for a 3-1 lead right before the half, as he took a ball 45 yards from goal, took a few touches and scored from 25 yards out. The German midfielder has five goals and is one of the league leaders with 10 assists.
"Normally I like to assist my teammates, but no one was there so, as we say in Germany, I take my heart in my hand and shot," Schafer said.
New York got one back less than 10 minutes into the second half on a long ball from Arun Basuljevic, with Junior Flemmings scoring in the 54th minute. Tampa Bay's cause was aided in the 63rd minute when New York rookie Jordan Scarlett incurred a second yellow card, leaving his team down a man.