Never mind the fact that for American children, high schoolers and collegians, soccer is a fall and spring sport. And never mind that the European leagues we so admire play at least half of their schedules in the rain and cold. In the American professional ranks, soccer is a summer sport, and if that means two squads of professional athletes are heaving wrecks midway through the first half, so be it. If that means that minor injury stoppages turn into mass excursions to the sidelines for water bottles, so be it. And if it means low beer and food sales because it's too hot to eat or drink, well, so be it. And if it means stultifying, soporific soccer where an early one-goal deficit becomes an insurmountable margin, well, you have tonight's game in Cary between the RailHawks and the visiting Rochester Rhinos.
In a sport notorious for supposedly having few statistics, here are a couple that give us a hint of what a deadly game this was. First, the fouls: There were 11. Total, by both teams in both halves. Even the reliably bellicose Amir Lowery committed only one in the course of his usual stalwart 90 minutes. There were no cautions.
Then there were the saves. The goalkeepers made a grand total of two (TWO!) saves from a generously assessed 16 shots (RailHawks right back Greg Shields told us later that his long ball that hit the crossbar was a cross, not a shot).
And, while I can't prove this because the United States Soccer Federation doesn't deem this statistic worth keeping at the D-2 level, I am reasonably certain there was not a single offsides call. Granted, you don't want offsides to be called, but these infractions are an indication of twitchy, impatient, ambitious and, above all, energetic forwards. (It also is a reflection of the fact that, after striking in the 15th minute, the Rhinos were happy to park the bus. A bus without air conditioning.)
As usual, I eschewed the air-conditioned press box and took up Triangle Offense's usual spot in the West Stand. Despite my determination not to move any muscle that didn't involve writing notes, sweat was soon dripping down my brow, off my arms and down my back.
Still, the crowd was decent considering the heat and the midweek date. This was a big game for the RailHawks, an opportunity to take points off another top-performing USSF-D2 Pro League side. But after RailHawks center back and captain Mark Schulte misplayed a ball in midfield, the Rhinos stampeded down the middle, with Isaac Kissi finding Tyler Rosenlund on the other side of a badly exposed Eric Reed. Rosenlund put the ball away.
It was the 15th minute, and according to RailHawks coach Martin Rennie, his team's fate was practically sealed.
"On a night like tonight, when it's stifling hot, when you walk out of the locker room and [the heat] hits you, you have to score first," Rennie said.
"When you don't score first you have to put energy into getting the next goal back and then you lose the next goal on the break, and that's exactly what happened."
Although the RailHawks rarely looked like equalizing, a Josh Gardner cross to Allan Russell at the goal mouth in the 27th minute drew appreciative exclamations from the crowd. That was pretty much it for the excitement in the stanza.
While the soccer was pretty deadly, it was the dead-ball music—a new feature at WakeMed Soccer Park—that got the crowd's pulses moving. A few bars of "We Will Rock You," say, or the clappy thing from John Fogerty's "Centerfield," served to give the crowd a jolt of energy and focus. I suppose I'm something of a purist on this, but then, the RailHawks don't yet have 50,000 fans belting out "You'll Never Walk Alone." In truth, the use of music was fairly restrained and the management included some songs I hadn't heard in this kind of context before.
Second half, peeeeeep! Shields launched the aforementioned 40-yarder off the crossbar in the 51st. In the 54th, Gregory Richardson cut inside, played the ball to Matt Watson who attempted to slide the ball into the box but Richardson, Allan Russell and Josh Gardner had met in a three-car pileup.
In the 55th, I noticed Schulte's electric-blue boots. (He's really a black-boot, lunch-bucket kind of guy, like his captain counterpart on Rochester, former RailHawk Frankie Sanfilippo, who wears black.)
In the 60th minute, the first of Rochester's five long, slow substitutions commenced.
In the 79th minute, the Rhinos erased all doubt of the outcome and gave fans license to begin heading for the exits. Against a stretched and heedless RailHawks defense, Adam "Batman" West took a ball down the left and launched a bat-cross to Ryan Heins at the far post, who volleyed it in.
This goal was inevitable, Rennie said.
"We had to make attack-minded changes to try and get back in the game," Rennie said.
"You're either going to win it, you're going to tie the game up or you're going to lose 2-0. And that's what happened. That first goal was a massive goal."
The last 10 minutes plus three were a blind nighttime safari through the tropical rain forest.
Peep peep peep.
The RailHawks return to action at WakeMed next Wednesday, Aug. 18, against the last-place Miami FC. The last time we saw them play at WakeMed, this was the 9-0 goalfest. As poor as Miami have been, we won't hope for a similar result, because their keeper is the talented former RailHawk Caleb Patterson-Sewell.
Former RailHawk and N.C. State standout Aaron King is also on that squad. *
The big news is that Brad Rusin, the 6-foot-5 defender who hasn't appeared on the field for the RailHawks since mid-July, is about to complete a transfer to a club in Denmark. Rennie indicated that Rusin has likely played his last game with the Cary club.
I asked Rusin about it. He told me that he was invited to tour the Netherlands and Denmark with the Chicago Sockers and Rennie granted him permission.
"When I signed here, Martin told me I'd have opportunities to go to Europe," Rusin said.
"Martin stayed true to his word and let me go over there and everything happened for the best."
After an extended trial with a club in the first-division (one below the top-flight Superligaen), he was invited to join. Rusin declined to reveal the club's name publicly because details have not been finalized. However, he expects details to be finalized Thursday, and to return to Denmark on Aug. 20.
Rusin played his college ball for UCLA before joining the RailHawks last season.
And, I asked RailHawks director of communications Marco Rosa about the dead-ball music at the stadium, which made its first appearance during Saturday's 2-0 victory over Montreal.
"We realized that to get the fans engaged we needed—not to be overbearing—but to add a bit of music and atmosphere to help get the fans going," Rosa said. "We also changed our music selection to make it a bit more edgy and more current," he added, citing the Kings of Leon and Katy Perry that was heard.
"We didn't want to be overbearing like the first two years, and we didn't want to go silent like last year," he said. "We decided together, what can we do to give the fans more for their money? We already give them a great product on the field, but we want them to be a little more engaged and have a great experience."
Rosa said they haven't heard any complaints yet.
*Aaron King spent part of last season with Miami FC, but is with FC Tampa Bay this year. Thanks to Reader X for the correction.