By FRANCO PANIZO
A bus containing several dozen Tampa Bay residents made a near-275 mile trip to Florida's East Coast on Saturday. It didn't go for the beaches and nightlife, but for the revival of an old soccer rivalry in the Sunshine State.
Tampa Bay citizens traveled in numbers to Lockhart Stadium for the rebirth of a decades old derby between Miami FC and FC Tampa Bay Rowdies, but they weren't the only ones lured out as several South Floridians made the effort to attend their first game of the season.
"I'm one of the old Miami Fusion fans, and this is my first time back so I'm really excited to come back," said Jay Rose, a Miami Beach native. "I don't know why it's been so long, but my friends are in from out of town and they are like 'let's go to the game' so that's why I'm here."
The Blues hosted Tampa Bay in the first match of this season's Coastal Cup, the new, annual derby between the two Florida teams that is decided by points won in a season against one another, and it had every bit the making of a renewed heated rivalry.
In front of an announced crowd of 1,506 fans at Lockhart Stadium, there were several clumsy (and perhaps dirty) challenges, a handful of cards dished out, including one red, and a late equalizer which ended an already intense game with drama.
After struggling to find its rhythm in the first half an hour, Miami took a 1-0 lead in the 39th minute courtesy of Christian Gomez's first goal for the club. The 2006 MLS MVP got on the end of a nifty heel pass from forward/midfielder Paulo Araujo Jr. and struck a shot that deflected off a defender before creeping inside the near post.
"It was a great play where I made an overlapping run, got on the end of a heel pass, brought it down with my right foot and shot it with my left to the near post," said Gomez. "I saw [Tampa Bay goalkeeper Darryl Sattler] cheating to the far post so I struck it where I did and got a bit lucky."
Gomez's glory was short-lived as three minutes after halftime he was sent off for a reckless slide tackle from behind on Rowdies forward Aaron Wheeler at midfield.
"I went in poorly, but I think the referee was pressured into his decision because the second half had just begun," said Gomez. "I don't think it was for red, it was for yellow. They had fouled me similarly earlier. I'm sincerely disappointed because I left the team with ten men winning 1-0 and we couldn't pull out the victory."
Miami began to absorb waves of pressure from its northern neighbor, and in the 81st minute the defense finally collapsed as former Los Angeles Galaxy defender Julian Valentin headed home a corner kick in the 81st.
The Rowdies followed up the goal with numerous chances that could have given them the lead, but splendid saves from Blues 'keeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell ensured the match would end 1-1. The draw kept Miami undefeated this season, but also marks the first time the club has opened a season with three draws.
Despite surrendering a late goal, Miami FC coach Victor Pastora was pleased with his team's response to the red card. Pastora was also excited by the potential this Florida rivalry promises to have.
"We know it was a great rivalry and you can see it in the stands and you can see the players getting a feel for it," said Pastora. "It's always about bragging rights, beating the guys from your state, so I think this rivalry will only develop."
A sign that the rivalry is continuing to develop will come on July 4, when Miami plays at Tampa in the second of four matches this season. If a bus load of Miami FC faithful snub the beach and fireworks on Independence Day for a trip up north, this Florida rivalry may prove to be one of the strongest in the league.
What do you think of the renewed rivalry between Miami and Tampa? Do you see Gomez going on a tear now that he is starting to settle with the Blues?
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