ST. PETERSBURG — Just as he did in the first two games of the season, midfielder Georgi Hristov came through for the Rowdies in a time of offensive need, scoring on a cross from the left side in the 47th minute Saturday to lead Tampa Bay to a 1-0 win against Ottawa.
The first half in front of an announced crowd of 5,310 at Al Lang Stadium was a back-and-forth affair, with each team having clear chances, but each one coming up short. Tampa Bay (3-0) had all three of its first-half corner kicks in the opening 17 minutes, but the Ottawa (0-2) defense was relentless, denying every Tampa Bay scoring opportunity.
Despite its clear advantage in time of possession, Tampa Bay was outshot 6-3 in the first half. And midway through the period, the momentum began to shift.
Against a Rowdies defense that has yet to allow a goal this season, the Fury tried to make the most of its early chances. In the 24th minute, Ottawa had a one-on-one with Rowdies keeper Akira Fitzgerald, but he made the first of his three saves.
After the break, the Rowdies took back the control they had from the start.
"It's not like we didn't play well in the first half, but we needed more chemistry. It happened right away right after the half," Hristov said about his cross from Luke Boden. "We talked about it, what to do to do better, and it worked out great. He told me if I'm too high just go in the box, and that's what we did."
Hristov's goal, his third of the season, was followed minutes later by a Rowdies free kick just outside the box, but Michael Nanchoff's shot was wide. Tampa Bay had a pair of corner kicks in a two-minute span, but Ottawa's defense broke up the Rowdies offense in front of the goal.
Hristov, who led the Rowdies with 11 goals last season, has proven to be a playmaker once again, scoring the only goal in a season-opening win against Orlando City and another in a 4-0 victory against Toronto.
"He's a fantastic player. You can play him center forward, left wing, right wing," Rowdies coach Stuart Campbell said. "He just does a fantastic job. He's just a good, good footballer."
But Tampa Bay's real hero, perhaps, is a defense that has refused to relent in 270 minutes this season.
Ottawa kept searching for an equalizer for the rest of the second half, coming close in the 74th minute on a cross on which they ultimately couldn't deliver. Ottawa outshot the Rowdies 11-10, including three shots on target, but every chance was thwarted by the Rowdies' still-perfect defense.
"They've been incredible. All four of those guys have been really, really doing well for me, really limiting the chances all three games," Fitzgerald said.