For a while, it was looking like it was going to be a frustrating night in front of goal for the FC Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Then with a brilliant piece of finishing with seven minutes remaining, Aaron King scored his third goal of the season and gave the team a 2-1 victory against the Puerto Rico Islanders in the USSF Division II, extending the Rowdies' league-best undefeated streak to seven games.
After hitting the crossbar three minutes earlier with a looping volley from 10 yards out, King latched onto a flicked header by Aaron Wheeler off Takuya Yamada's long throw-in and from a tight angle on the left side of the penalty area used the outside of his right foot to flick his first-time shot past advancing Islanders goalkeeper Bill Guadette and into the right side-netting.
"We designed that at training," Wheeler said. "It's just one of those where we practice the long throw, they make the diagonal runs in behind me and I just try to make a little flick over behind and it just happened for him to be in the perfect spot. A little bit of luck, but it was designed, good to see it come off."
The Rowdies (5-1-3) held the advantage for most of the first half, Puerto Rico threatening mostly on the counter-attack, but the game didn't heat up until close to the half-hour mark. Julian Valentin came close to putting the Rowdies ahead in the 29th minute as his header from Pascal Millien's angled cross went just wide. Long Tan then also threatened a minute later, his shot going inches wide of the left post.
The game then caught fire in the 36th minute, Kwame Adjeman-Pamboe having a close-range shot blocked before Tan hit the post with the rebound. A minute later the Islanders were reduced to 10 men when Joseph Salem was ejected after aiming a dangerous challenge at Tan's ankles. Salem didn't appear to make much contact, but the nature of the challenge saw referee Dan Fitzgerald pull out a red card.
The Rowdies took the lead a minute before halftime on Wheeler's fourth goal of the season, all of which have come in the last five games. Millien first drew two defenders on the left and laid a pass back to Graham Tatters. His first-time delivery into the penalty area was met by an Islanders defender, but he fired his clearance into a teammate and the ball dropped to Wheeler who rifled a shot into the bottom of the net.
"The ball just dropped to me and my eyes got absolutely huge," Wheeler said. "I was just so excited and I was able to get a foot on it and put it in the net."
Tan then hit the post in the 55th minute, a clever through-ball by Millien putting him in on the right side of the penalty area, but his shot was partially blocked by Gaudette and then span off the right post before being cleared to safety
A minute later, it appeared as though the Islanders would make the Rowdies pay for their misses. Despite being down to 10 men, the Islanders (2-3-0) were still able to threaten from set pieces, and they tied the game in the 56th minute on a lax piece of Rowdies defending, Marco Velez heading home from Josh Hansen's corner.
"We had plenty of chances earlier on to win the game and make it a little bit easier for ourselves," Rowdies coach Paul Dalglish said. "We had a lot of chances in the first and second half and I think if we'd taken them we could have put them out of sight. But you've got to concentrate on the positives, and for them to come out and beat one of the so-called powerhouses of the league, now people might start taking us serious and thinking we're for real."
Thanks to King's sparkling finish, which left the Rowdies with a 4-0-1 record in a spell of five games in 16 days, the team is feeling confident as it enters the third month of the season. They remained two points behind the Austin Aztex for the lead in the USL Conference, who also won on Saturday night 2-0 against Crystal Palace Baltimore.
"We're buzzing right now," King said. "We've got some work to do, but I feel like we're on the right path. I'm excited."