Birmingham Legion FC began the USL Championship Eastern Conference Quarterfinals with a matchup against Group H winners, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
After an impressive comeback from 2-0 down, the boys in black conceded two quick goals that allowed the Rowdies to capture a 4-2 victory on the night and advance in the USL Playoffs.
The flow of the match was even throughout the night, with possession ending 51 percent to Tampa Bay and shots ending even at 13.
However, it was Tampa Bay who slotted its goal-scoring opportunities away to earn a win and book a spot in the USL Eastern Conference semifinals.
Tampa Bay midfielder Jordan Doherty scored the first goal of the match in the eighth minute when he latched onto a ball at the top of the box and buried it in the top left corner.
The Rowdies scored a second goal just before the half, courtesy of Uruguayan forward Sebastián Guenzatti.
The Rowdies’ leading scorer connected with the end of a cross into the box and finished off the underside of the crossbar.
Legion FC struck early in the second half after the sustained possession and probing attacks finally paid off.
After a Legion corner kick was only half cleared and swung back in, defender Alex Crognale fought to head it down before Ghanaian midfielder Prosper Kasim smashed a first-time volley low past the goalkeeper in the 57th minute of the contest.
Shortly after, the Legion found the back of the net a second time, this time off the boot of Brazilian midfielder and Wake Forest product Bruno Lapa in the 63rd minute.
A Tampa Bay turnover led to Legion FC forward Neco Brett getting on the ball at the edge of the box, and while he could have gone for the shot, he calmly laid it off to the onrushing Lapa to place a sweet finish into the far corner and tie the contest for the time being.
Tampa Bay caught a second wind and put the match away after the 75th minute hydration break.
A headed goal from Zimbabwean substitute Lucky Mkosana became the second Rowdies goal to go in off the frame of the goal.
Fellow Tampa Bay substitute Leo Fernandes followed with a goal of his own by cutting into the box in the 80th minute and scoring the Rowdies’ fourth goal of the match.
Legion FC head coach Tommy Soehn reflected on the team’s performance after the game.
“Well, we came out and I think they dictated the terms of the game and made us chase,” Soehn said in a press release. “So, we made some tactical moves at halftime, and I think they benefited us greatly. We started putting them under pressure and turning that pressure into chances. Just as you think you’re back in the game, we kind of let one in and burst our bubble. I don’t expect to win many games letting in that many goals. At the end of the season we weren’t able to close the door on teams and that’s always a difficult situation to be in.”
Even though the match ended in favor of Tampa Bay, Soehn acknowledged the aspect of an entertaining season.
“I think this was a really fun group to coach,” said Soehn in the press release. “They always gave me everything they had, and that’s all you can ever ask as a coach. Now it’s time to assess and continue to get better as a club. Obviously, it’s a disappointing way to go out, but again I credit the guys. They played all year for me, and that’s all I can ever ask.”
After a difficult end to the season, a clear message from players after the match was their gratitude for the continued support from fans in and around Birmingham and the Legion supporters group known as the “Magic City Brigade.”
“Thank you to the Magic City Brigade and the entire Birmingham community for your relentless support this season,” Alex Crognale said, according to the press release. “In probably the most difficult season for players and fans to endure, you stood by our side and propelled us through the seasons. We are all disappointed with the result tonight, but the Legion will be back stronger next season and will continue to build something special in this community.”
Legion defender and Central Florida product Jonny Dean also voiced his gratitude.
“To the Birmingham Legion fans, thank you for your continuous support this year,” said Dean in the press release. “We are gutted that we couldn’t make a further run, but it was a privilege to wear the badge for you guys.”
Star defender Mikey Lopez added a few comments regarding the season.
“It was a difficult and strange season, but y’all stuck with us through everything,” Lopez said in the press release. “We can’t thank y’all enough for the tremendous support you have shown us all season. I’m sorry that we weren’t able to accomplish our ultimate goal, but we will learn and keep improving. Thank y’all so much again, and I can’t wait to see everyone next year.”
Lapa acknowledged that even though the season ended on a sad note, the fans were there for the squad throughout the entire season.
“Well, it is a tough way to end the season, unfortunately we fell short tonight, but we wouldn’t be able to be in this position, in the playoffs and fighting for a championship, if we didn’t have the fanbase that we have in Birmingham and all the support we received throughout the season,” Lapa said in the press release. “It was definitely a different season with the situation going on around the world, but the Legion fans came out and supported us every game and gave us the support we needed to be in the playoffs. Every game was a special atmosphere at BBVA Field, so for us that was very special having them at our games. Even the people that couldn’t make it to the games, through social media they were always supporting us, and that was massive for us.”
In his first season, Lapa found a goal-scoring groove early on and stuck with it throughout the year. His first season with the club showed immense promise, and he was quick to thank everyone for their continued support as well.
“Every single player on the team feels how passionate and special the fanbase of the Legion is, and personally they took me in this year, as a rookie, and supported me, and I appreciate the love from the bottom of my heart, and all the support and messages and coming to the games, it was extremely important for me in trying to help the Legion this season,” Lapa said in the press release. “Again, unfortunately we came up short, but thank you to the fans for the support throughout the season and I’m looking forward to the future with the Legion. Hammer Down!”
The boys in black will spend the next few months preparing for a full season in 2021. It is likely that Soehn, along with Legion FC General Manager and Owner Jay Heaps will return to Ghana for scouting within a matter of weeks, COVID permitting.