ST. PETERSBURG — After a pulsating half-hour that saw the Rowdies keep their playoff hopes afloat, the soccer gods that seemed destined to have them duck out of the playoff picture struck again Wednesday. Visiting Indy Eleven shook off a Rowdies rally for a 3-2 victory when Nicki Paterson drilled in the winning goal in the 85th minute.
Tampa Bay (9-10-11) trails Minnesota and Rayo OKC for the final playoff spot with just two games left. The Rowdies could have created a three-way tie for fourth but could not do so against an Indy team that played a lesser lineup before an announced 5,348 at Al Lang.
"It's out of our hands. We have to rely on another team," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said.
Joe Cole's two-goal performance had rallied Tampa Bay from a 2-0 halftime deficit, and the home team dominated second-half play, but nothing-to-lose Indy capitalized on one of its few second-half chances.
Indy, having already clinched a home playoff game with the spring title, sat several of its starters and in the first half looked like a team with not a care in the world. At the same time the Rowdies came out tentative and paid for it, trailing 2-0 at the half.
"Many of them having their first start, really put their heart into it," said Indy coach Tim Hankinson, who actually inserted some normal starters as subs as their replacements couldn't handle the humidity.
Duke Lacroix, a part-time player, nutmegged a Rowdies defender before slotting a low shot by Matt Pickens in the 15th minute. It was just Lacroix's second goal of the season. Lacroix deserved most of the credit for the second goal, his knifing run creating an easy direct for Jair Reinoso, who was starting just his third game and made it 2-0 at the 31-minute mark.
The signs piled up to make it appear this wasn't Tampa Bay's night, as within the next two minutes it had a Martin Vingaard blast rifle off the crossbar, then Cole beat goalkeeper Keith Cardona only to be called offsides. Replays showed he was off by half a step, maybe less.
Cole created four chances in the final four minutes of the half, scoring again only to be flagged for offsides, though the second infraction was clear. Tampa Bay held possession for two-thirds of the first half.
"It just felt like we were gonna win. This one hurts," midfielder Keith Savage said.
The Rowdies' final home game is Saturday against Ottawa.