Keys to the game for tonight's USSF-D2 Pro League championship. This is the return leg of the two-legged final. The RailHawks lost 2-0 on Sunday in Puerto Rico. The winner is determined by aggregate score, so...
1. The RailHawks must outscore the Islanders by at least two goals. At the end of normal time, it's that simple. If they're level on aggregate after 90, two 15-minute periods will ensue, to be followed by penalty kicks.
2. Can the defense stay organized? Although the patchwork defense has been pretty good overall, they simply cannot afford to make the awful lapses on set pieces they've had in their last two losses. Like against Montreal here and Puerto Rico here (at 4:20).
3. How quickly do the RailHawks go on the offensive? The RailHawks have to find two goals while not yielding. Do they press from the outset? Or do they bide their time, looking to wear down the Puerto Rico defense and find counterattacks? I'm guessing the latter, with an infusion of fresh legs midway through the second half. Both of the previous home victories were return-leg games, and both were won with second-half goals.
4. Who will play right back? Greg Shields is one of the best in the league, but he's been out with injury for six weeks. Devon McKenney was signed to help fill the gap, but he was hurt two weeks ago against Montreal. Cory Elenio, a versatile workhorse, has been playing right back in their stead, but he's not the same threat down the flank. Rennie has held out the possibility that Shields might return to fitness, but this would be a huge game for him to make his first appearance since Sept. 15.
5. The Daniel Paladini effect The team's dynamic midfield playmaker and clutch performer was left off the starting lineup last weekend in Puerto Rico, and remained on the bench, unused. One can only surmise that the atrocious condition of the pitch—and the inelegant long-ball play that resulted—made Rennie feel that Paladini would be ill-suited to the game. Or it could have been something else. Regardless, he'll surely be in the lineup tonight. He's the team's points leader on seven goals and five assists. He's a "give-me-the-ball" kind of player, and the RailHawks will need his confidence and his poise under pressure.
6. Here's my lineup prediction. Guaranteed to be wrong!
——Heinemann — Richardson—-
7. Scouting Puerto Rico
****Jonathan Faña got himself suspended for this game after picking up a boneheaded yellow card last game that put him over the limit for accumulation.
****Second-leading scoring Nicholas Addlery is recovering fitfully from knee surgery. He has missed two games in a row—look for him to start on the bench if he's at all fit. If the Islanders get into trouble, look out for him.
****The team's leading scorer is David Foley, the team's signing from England's League One Hartlepool. He has nine goals and should be on the field.
****Goalkeeper Bill Gaudette is a strong veteran keeper (check out his save of Kupono Low's 35-yard screamer at 7:25 of the video linked above). He's also a shameless but ruthlessly effective time-waster. He'll be formidable at killing off the last few minutes, so the RailHawks had better equalize before he can begin conducting his black arts.
8. Final note: This will be the final game in the history of the USSF-D2 Pro League. Kudos to the U.S. Soccer Federation for holding together second-division play this year. Now, after this game, the hard work of building lower-division soccer in North America resumes.
Kickoff is 7 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park. Tickets here.