Rowdies stretch Tropics to limit, but late penalty kick lifts Lakeland to fourth straight win

by Brian Ackley

LAKELAND – The wins just keep on coming for the Lakeland Tropics, although this one was hard fought and came right down to the closing moments.

Ricardo Diegues banged in his fifth goal of the season, this one a penalty kick in second half stoppage time, as the Lakeland Tropics defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies U23, 2-1, before 2,404 damp but thrilled fans at Bryant Stadium Saturday night.

It was the fourth straight win for the Premier Development League expansion team, and moved them to sole possession of second place in the nine-team southeast division.

The game was expected to be the beginning of a PDL rivalry, and the game didn't disappoint. There were six yellow cards, three each side, and Tampa Bay also picked up a red card late in the second half.

The Rowdies were whistled for 18 fouls, and Lakeland a dozen.

Tampa Bay got on the board first, in the 32nd minute when Ricky Lopez beat Tropics goalkeeper Jonathan Valerio on a low shot. Lopez was a second team All Big East selection last fall after he led the Creighton Blue Jays in goals with 10.

But the Tropics,4-1, played much more crisply in the second half – much of which was played with light rain falling –  and got the equalizer in the 49th minute when Juan Tejada scored his second goal in as many games, setting up the Diegues heroics in the closing moments. Diegues, the Lakeland captain, was tied for the team lead in goals for the Florida Tropics, Lakeland's sister franchise in the Major Arena Soccer League that will start its second season at the RP Funding Center in November.

Lakeland goalkeeper Jonathan Valerio faced 16 shots and made 11 saves for his fourth win of the season. After allowing four goals in a season opening loss at FC Miami City, who was tied for second in the division coming into Saturday night's action, Valerio has only given up three two goals in his last three games.

The Tropics will be back at Bryant Stadium next Saturday when they host Weston FC in a 7:35 start. The Tropics took a 2-1 win in Weston on May 24.