by Neil Morris
The 0-0 draw between Carolina (10-8-8, 38 pts.) and Portland (11-7-9, 42 pts.) at drizzly WakeMed Soccer Park is, frankly, the most unsurprising of outcomes. Portland entered the game having allowed only 20 goals over 26 matches this season; only Vancouver has surrendered fewer. Its backline had shut out four of its last five opponents while conceding only one goal over that same span. Moreover, four of the last five meetings between Carolina and Portland have ended in a draw, and the RailHawks have not beaten the Timbers in nearly two years.
Still, the RailHawks entered the game as the second highest scoring in USSF-D2 soccer and tied as the fourth stingiest defense. Surprisingly, Carolina had not ended a game in a tie since the 2-2 result against Vancouver on July 31.
While Carolina was looking to possibly clinch a playoff spot, Portland had already punched its ticket. That could account for the conspicuous absence of league scoring leader Ryan Pore from the Timbers’ lineup. Also missing was speedy midfielder Alex Nimo and defender Steve Purdy, who was active but never entered the match.
Meanwhile, the RailHawks again featured what game captain Greg Shields called “a makeshift defense.” Kupono Low and Daniel Woolard made their second consecutive starts following last week’s shutout of Baltimore. They were joined by Devon McKenney, a member of the RailHawks last season who had not darkened the pitch in Cary this year before last Sunday’s friendly against Pumas Morelos. Unfortunately, midweek injuries to Matt Bobo, Brad Rusin and team captain Mark Schulte (more on him later) necessitated McKenney’s inclusion at center back.
Also getting his first start as a RailHawk was Charleston Battery loanee Tom Heinemann, who came on against Baltimore for a still-injured Etienne Barbara. Unfortunately, both he and fellow forward Allan Russell spent this evening running headlong into a forest of Timber defenders.
Carolina controlled possession for most of the first half. In the 17th minute, a sliding pass to Floyd Franks ended with a shot over goal. Heinemann took control a bouncer in the 36th minute but bounded it left of the post. Russell overshot in the 41st minute, while his end-around cross into the box in the 54th was deflected out for an inconsequential corner.
Portland’s best opportunity of the half—and perhaps the entire match—came in the 51st minute, when a corner kick by Rodrigo Lopez rattled around the goalmouth before being spat out by the crossbar.
Chippy play dominated the second half. Matt Watson sustained a cut over his eye in the 63rd minute, but reentered the match two minutes later after the fight doctor patched him up. For the match, both teams amassed 30 fouls, five each by Heinemann (who also found time to attempt six shots) and Portland’s Bright Dike, plus four by the Timbers’ Takayuki Suzuki, who only entered the match in the 67th minute in the role of what hockey fans commonly call “the goon.”
As the uneventful back-and-forth seemed headed for an inevitable draw, Matt Watson nearly duplicated Daniel Paladini’s stoppage time heroics at Portland back in June. As merely one minute of added time ticked down, Paladini slotted a through ball into the box to the streaking Watson, whose breakaway shot from the right side of the goal scooted just left of both goalkeeper Steve Cronin and the outside post.
“Ultimately, every game I’ve coached against Portland seem to all end in ties, often nil-nil,” said RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie. “So, we knew it was going to be one of those games where we had to break them down. We had to take our chances, and what was frustrating to me was we had two or three chances and we just didn’t take them.”
One curiosity late in the match was Rennie’s lack of substitutions. Portland employed four of their five allotments before Carolina used their first—Paladini on for Josh Gardner in the 77th minute. That would turn out to be the RailHawks’ lone sub on the night, in contrast to Rennie’s usual penchant for emptying the bench late in matches.
“The guys I could have put on didn’t have much height,” explained Rennie. “So, on set plays that could have given us a disadvantage. It was a difficult decision because it might have helped us get a goal if we had made a change. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose a goal, either.”
The RailHawks’ man of the match was Nic Platter, the former Minnesota Thunder goalkeeper who played his best game by far since coming to Carolina this year. After being consigned to the bench most of the season, this was Platter’s sixth consecutive start and his second clean sheet. Besides being credited with four saves, Platter spent all evening successfully swatting away innumerable corner kicks and crosses into the box.
“I thought [getting back in the starting lineup] was like riding a bike, but I guess it took me a lot longer than I thought,” said Platter. “After being in one place for five years, I didn’t realize how much I had committed myself to being in Minnesota and forming a life there. So, coming here was a big adjustment to get know 30 new players. I feel like I’ve really settled down and am in the swing of things now. It feels good to be fresh and ready to play all the time.”
As the RailHawks’ regular season winds down, it appears they will be without the services of Schulte, who was seen wearing a large metal brace on his right leg. Rennie said more tests will be run on Monday, but it appears Schulte may be done for the season.
“[Mark’s] been a great captain for us over the past two years,” said vice-captain Greg Shields. “It’s disappointing. These things happen in football. I’m obviously grateful to be captain, but it’s just unfair to Mark Schulte. I just have to stay on top of my game and keep the boys ready, as well. I think we’re doing that so far.
“Everyone who is getting a jersey now is doing the job. You could say that really wasn’t the case several weeks back, when we were allowing in so many goals. But, now everyone is on the same page and everybody is pulling in the same direction.”
The RailHawks’ next match will be Wednesday, Sept. 15 at Minnesota. A win would clinch a playoff berth for Carolina. After a match at Baltimore next Saturday, they return to WakeMed Soccer Park for the final two matches of the regular season, beginning Sept. 25 against the Puerto Rico Islanders.