WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Bummer. It was a lovely evening for soccer, sunny and mild in early fall. Just as it's a little early for the leaves to change color and drop from the trees, it was a little early for the RailHawks' remarkable season to end.
But end it did, as an exhausted and increasingly desperate squad failed to put the ball in the net against the seventh-seeded Vancouver Whitecaps, finishing with a nil-nil draw. The RailHawks needed a 1-0 victory just to get to penalty kicks, but the Cary XI closed their season by failing to score in 180 minutes and two home-and-home legs against a bigger and more experienced, playoff-hardened Vancouver side.
By the end, the RailHawks were in a 4-4-2 and throwing everyone forward. "We had chances in the first half and didn't take them," coach Martin Rennie said. "It made it a little more difficult. We started to go more direct.
"When you go more direct, you need the ball to bounce your way and it didn't—which usually isn't the way we play," Rennie said. "We're usually much more thought-through, much more precise. But once we weren't getting the goal, I think maybe we began to panic a little bit, which made it more difficult to break them down."
"You've got to credit Vancouver," center back and captain Mark Schulte said. "They knew what they had to do: They had to shut us down—they sat in [on us]."
In truth, the RailHawks showed little of the squad that scored 43 goals in USL-1 league play. They launched 12 shots, but Whitecaps keeper Jay Nolly only needed to make four saves.
It was one save in particular that would prove to put the kibosh on the season.
In the 36th minute, Gregory Richardson was brought down in the box by the Whitecaps' Lyle Martin, his albatross for the game. Although Richardson took the PK the last time he drew a foul in the box—on the occasion of his hat trick against Miami back in July—Daniel Paladini stepped in as he has on every other such occasion this season.
This time, he missed. His shot to the left was weak, and Nolly deflected it away easily.
After the game, a downcast Paladini said he slipped. The California native is an alpha player, someone who relishes his leadership role in the center of the midfield and embraces the burden and the glory of penalty kicks. So, his failure to convert stung, and it was not a little ironic, as he was voted by his teammates the RailHawks' MVP, an award that was announced before the game.
"I told the guys at halftime that I take full responsibility," Paladini said. "I was going to leave my heart on the field."
Paladini also seemed to disagree with coach Martin Rennie's decision to take him off in the 60th minute. "I definitely wish I'd stayed on longer, but I guess Martin felt like maybe [the missed PK] was in my head or something, and wanted to freshen things up."
Rennie said he took Paladini off because "he looked tired and I thought Brian [Plotkin] might give us a spark. He's done that before coming off the bench and I thought he might again."
Even in the first half, certain players looked exhausted. At one point, John Cunliffe made two passes directly to opponents in the span of about 10 seconds, and other players seemed to be heaving.
"I thought we looked quite tired tonight, for some reason," Rennie said. "Obviously, it's been a long season and there's been a lot of travel, but we just didn't have that spark."
Paladini didn't disagree that the team was tired. "We could use that as an excuse," Paladini said. "I mean, some of us probably have our opinions that we should have played at home first [rather than having to] travel twice. But when it comes down to it, it's our job. We've got to come out and perform, no matter what the circumstances are."
Although Paladini's botched PK was the obvious golden opportunity, there were others. The RailHawks launched numerous strong counterattacks that came to naught: Richardson, Cunliffe, Greg Shields, Joseph Kabwe and Josh Gardner all launched runs downfield.
But too many passes and through-balls were misplaced, and too often the bigger Whitecaps side just outmuscled the RailHawks. Strikers Andriy Budnyy and Matthew Delicâte, who each played a half, mustered only one shot apiece. Brad Rusin, the holding midfielder, outshot them with three, including a hard blast in the game's opening minutes, off a layoff from Budnyy.
"I think we had our fair share of chances," Paladini said. "I think we could have been more composed in front of the net. We had tons of crosses and tons of good opportunities but we didn't make the best out of it. It's just something we need to work on in the off-season and come back and get a win for this franchise in the playoffs."
"I'm really proud of our team," Schulte said. "For the most part we were a group of strangers and we really came together.
"One thing we'll have to learn next year is how to play in the post-season, which is a totally different beast than the regular season."
Rennie reflected a bit on a year that saw the RailHawks go from missing the playoffs last season to a second-place finish in the regular season: "It's been a good season—not a great season, because a great season is when you win championships and things like that.
"We've never really talked about injuries," Rennie continued, "but it has played a part. Even tonight: Amir Lowery, he's one of our best players and he wasn't able to play. Matt Watson, he's one of our best players and he wasn't able to play.
"We have the nucleus of a good team and given time, we can make it much stronger."