ST. PETERSBURG — They lost their final regular-season match and could have been watching the playoffs from home had a couple of other final-week United Soccer League results gone differently.
But forget all that. Despite coming into the USL playoffs seeded seventh out of eight teams in the Eastern Conference, the New York Red Bulls II appear to be well suited to defend their league championship.
The Rowdies will try and end that quest, while extending their own championship aspirations, when the teams meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
While Tampa Bay's 3-0 dissection of Cincinnati was downright dominant, New York's 4-0 triumph at No. 2 seed Charleston might have surpassed it.
"Listen, they're the defending champions of the USL. They're not gonna give up their title easy," said Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell.
As worrisome as the New York showing might be, it did provide the path for Tampa Bay to enjoy being home for Saturday's festivities. Last week's crowd of 6,000-plus was buzzing throughout and witnessed midfelder Marcel Schafer adding two goals to his MVP-like recent run of play.
Georgi Hristov had the other tally, bringing his team-high total to 14 goals.
"I definitely feel there's a chemistry between us, and we know what to do on the field," Hristov said. "No matter if Marcel goes out wide or Seba (Sebastian Guenzatti) goes out wide, I know where to go, they know where to go. That's good for us. Obviously that comes with confidence when you win games."
New York is pretty confident on the attack itself. On Oct. 7, in what ultimately decided a playoff spot, the Red Bulls came out on the right side of a 6-5 result against Orlando City B. Until its regular-season finale, a 2-1 loss to Rochester, New York had scored at least twice in each of its previous eight games.
Tampa Bay hasn't been shut out in 17, nor has it lost in eight.
"We're very attack minded, both of us as teams. Both defensive units are going to have a busy night," said Campbell.
The Red Bulls got goals from four players last weekend, begun by Stefano Bonomo who leads the squad with 11. New York beat the Rowdies 4-2 at home Sept. 2 before Tampa Bay prevailed 3-2 at home a month later.
The winner will play either top seed Louisville or No. 4 Rochester in the conference finals Nov. 4. If the Rowdies and Rochester win, Al Lang would again be the site. Crazy as it might have seemed a week ago, there's actually better than a slim chance Tampa Bay could — should it advance there, of course — host the USL Cup. Overall No. 1 seed (Real Monarchs SLC) and West No. 3 (Reno 1868 FC) were sent out in the first round last week.
Hristov and the Rowdies are just focused on Saturday's game, expecting the crowd to be a factor again.
"It was nice; they were amazing," he said. "I will definitely say, for the first time in a while they were so loud, the whole game. It was really helping us. They're our 12th player. And I hope Saturday's going to be even crazier."