Team America used an aggressive, physical defense and a first-half goal by Hayden Knight to defeat the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 1-0, last night before 8,268 at RFK Stadium.

Team America, which had lost, 3-1, in Tampa last week, moved from last to first place in the North American Soccer League's Southern Division with a 5-4 record and 35 points. The Rowdies (3-7), who have lost two straight, have 32 points.

Team America, which was unable to keep up with Tampa Bay's speedy forwards in their last meeting, made sure speed wasn't a factor last night. Defenders Jeff Durgan, Alan Merrick and Dan Canter physically moved forwards Luis Fernando and Tatu off the ball, and forced Fernando out of the game at halftime with a groin injury.

"Durgan was like an animal," said Tatu, whose seven shots were taken mostly from long range and were not dangerous. "He was crazy . . . the referee should have sent him off. He aimed for my body, not the ball. I was afraid for my life."

Durgan, who came into the game with a team-high three yellow cards, was assessed his fourth at 40:40 after upending Tatu with a hard tackle at midfield. But Durgan denied he was excessively rough.

"In Tampa, we gave them too much room and they beat us," said Durgan. "We didn't go out tonight with the intention of hurting anybody, but we wanted to make our presence known. I just did my job. We played hard soccer, sure, but we went for the ball."

Tampa Bay Coach Al Miller, whose team is 0-5 on the road, blamed the officials for the game's physical nature.

"They (Team America) are professionals and simply took advantage of the situation," said Miller. "But the referee was dreadful, and he had no control over the game. Every time he gave out a yellow card, it was too late. The damage had been done."

Knight, who broke his right foot on March 25 in an exhibition game, scored the only goal at 21:51 off a corner kick from Pedro DeBrito. Lining up in the box at the near post, Knight faked two defenders out of position and sharply headed DeBrito's low cross into the right corner of the goal.

"I improvised a little," said Knight, who had four goals and 13 points last year for Montreal. "I knew where the ball was supposed to be, and Pedro put it right where he was supposed to. I had prayed I might score, and I actually believed I would before the game."

Knight played well as a defensive midfielder, getting off three shots before being replaced by Sonny Askew at 61:37. Knight was also issued a yellow card eight minutes into the game when he dumped Fernando with a hard tackle on the right wing. Fernando bounced up and threw an errant punch at Knight before the other players could intervene, and was also given a yellow card.

Team America goalkeeper Paul Hammond earned his third shutout, making seven saves and picking off six crossing passes into the box.

Team America, which has had trouble finishing all season long, held an 18-16 advantage in shots but failed to capitalize on numerous scoring opportunities.

Team America also nearly allowed the Rowdies to tie with five minutes left. Tatu took a chip pass from the right side and broke in alone on Hammond, but his weak shot was easily stopped.