by Neil Morris
While purists (often justifiably) deride the playoff system in American professional soccer, its survive-and-advance format has the ability to produce some of the finest renderings of the sport in this country, whether it be the USL PRO championship match between Orlando City and Harrisburg City last month or, now, NSC Minnesota’s 5-3 shootout win over the RailHawks to advance to the NASL Championship finals.
For the first time in six meetings this season, Carolina finally outscored NSC Minnesota over 90 minutes of game play, thus also technically snapping the RailHawks’ five-match losing streak. However, winning these minor battles is mild consolation for losing a war the RailHawks believed all season was theirs for the taking. The reasons and excuses for this defeat are bountiful, but its origin lies in the lone stoppage time goal Carolina surrendered in the first leg of the series last week at Minnesota, which hung like a Damoclean sword over the head of the once-mighty RailHawks.
The most notable lineup alteration made by RailHawks manager Martin Rennie was the insertion of Brian Farber in place of the mercurial Jonny Steele. The change produced mixed results. On one hand, Farber played an ineffectual game before being substituted for Steele in the 55th minute. However, putting the speedy Farber on the right wing allowed Etienne Barbara to shift over to the left, a switch that caught the Stars off guard at the outset and led to several early scoring opportunities for Carolina. Unfortunately, Carolina failed to capitalize on those early chances.
As expected, the RailHawks started out on their front foot, particularly the re-energized boot of Pablos Campos, whose acrobatic stab at a Matt Watson cross 30 seconds into the contest was a sign of prolific things to come for the Brazilian striker.
A 30-yard rocket from the Stars’ Neil Hlavaty in the 16th minute flew past RailHawks’ keeper Brad Knighton before bounding off the crossbar. Meanwhile, Barbara was carving up the right side of NSC Minnesota’s defense, displaying deft ball skills and passing before the Stars again decided to double/triple-team the Maltese talisman.
The RailHawk’ early drought was compounded in the 40th minute when Andrei Gotsmanov, the Stars’ hero from last Saturday, let loose on a low liner that deflected off the leg of Carolina defender Gareth Evans and past a crossed-up Knighton to give NSC Minnesota a 2-0 aggregate lead.
With halftime and Carolina’s seemingly inevitable demise looming, the RailHawks got a goal back in stoppage time. A feed from Low led to a collision atop the box between Warren, Kallman and Campos. The ball popped free towards goal with Campos in pursuit. In a scene reminiscent of his goal four weeks ago versus the Stars, Campos found the loose ball first and calmly deposited it into an open goal to make the aggregate goal score 2-1 at intermission.
In the 52nd minute, however, the Stars struck back in decisive fashion, as they have so many times against the RailHawks. Lucas Rodriguez beat Devon McKenney off the left wing—a scenario that repeated itself regularly thoughout the match—before releasing a shot that nutmegged Evans but not before glancing off one of his legs. The redirected orb sailed harmfully past Knighton to again put the Stars up two goals.
As quiet enveloped WakeMed Park, Rennie rolled the substitution dice in the 55th, inserting Steele for Farber and Nick Zimmerman for Tyler Lassiter, leaving the RailHawks with only three position defenders. The risk, however, would pay off.
In the 60th minute, Campos was taken down from behind inside the box while making a run towards goal. A penalty was issued and—somewhat surprisingly—it was Campos, not scoring leader Etienne Barbara, who stepped to the spot. Nevertheless, Campos plowed the ball into the upper left netting to again pull the RailHawks to a one-goal deficit.
Three minutes later, Barbara played a ball into space towards goal. Zimmerman caught up to it before an out-rushing Warren and lifted it over the keeper to even the aggregate goal tally at 3-3.
With pandemonium erupting at WakeMed Park, the Stars did what they often do. Another run by Rodriguez led to him being gridiron-tackled in front of goal by McKenney. The referee issued a straight red card, sending McKenney off. Hvalaty completed the penalty kick to put NSC Minnesota up 4-3 on aggregate.
With Carolina down to 10 men and the crowd again muffled, the remainder of regular time found the weary RailHawks making try after try at one last gasp to pull even once more. A few fans were even seen leaving early to beat the imminent rush. Those who remained believed their dedication rewarded when a handball inside the box was called on Hvalaty in the 87th minute. Campos again stepped to the spot, but his shot banged off the underside of the crossbar and back into play.
Over the extra time, the leg-weary teams exchanged feeble chances. Campos in particular was barely able to move about the field, going down three or four times with crippling leg cramps.
After the scoreless extra time, the teams went to the shootout. Its outcome would be decided in the RailHawks’ first attempt, when Steele’s limp kick was stopped by Warren. While Barbara, Low and Knighton (presumably in place for Campos) would convert their tries, NSC Minnesota were successful on all five of their kicks, propelling them to the NASL finals and filling the visitors’ locker room with the strains of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.”
“I’m exhausted...I’m numb,” said a relieved Stars head coach Manny Lagos. “I’m obviously ecstatic for my guys, but I need to step back and look at this night and look at what soccer is becoming in this country and this environment. What a great night for soccer and what a great night for both teams.”
“First of all, congratulations to Minnesota,” said Rennie. “It’s a great achievement for them to get to the NASL championship and I wish them all the best in the finals. I’m really proud of my players tonight. I couldn’t ask for any more as far as their effort and determination. They left everything on the field tonight and the crowd...responded with great backing.
“It’s disappointing to lose—penalty kicks are always the hardest way to go. I think it’s even harder after being down to 10 men for so long and having to play a full extra time. Tonight was just one of those nights. Things didn’t bounce our way “
With NSC Minnesota on its way to the championship round, the RailHawks are now left with a season full of memories. It was a year that saw the team win a league regular season title and set records for wins, longest winning and unbeaten streaks, and most goals scored. Etienne Barbara, who took fans on a exhilarating ride with his Ruthian goalscoring exploits early in the season, led the NASL in goals and assists and will be likely be named league MVP next week. Four members of the squad—Barbara, Knighton, Matt Watson and Kupono Low—were named to the NASL Best XI.
Still, as they say, you must take the bitter with the better. Now Rennie, Carolina’s prolific three-year coach, will depart for the Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS. A new gaffer will soon be hired, and after the perennial off-season uncertainty over league viability—this IS lower division U.S. soccer, after all—the RailHawks will take to the pitch again next spring.
To close this illustrious chapter in the club’s history, it seems appropriate to offer a series of extended quotes from three of last night’s participants, finishing with the manager who piloted the team to three consecutive winning and playoff seasons.
“If we wanted to be champion we couldn’t make those mistakes. We made a lot of mistakes, and we got punished for it ... I gave everything that I had. I’m far away from my family and here for soccer ... I was looking to get to the finals and win a trophy for the fans and the organization because I think we have the best facilities, the best coaching staff and the franchise is amazing ... My inspiration here tonight was that I love soccer. So, I gave it everything I could and did the things the coach asked. I gave it all.”
“I’d like to comment on Carolina because it’s amazing the resiliency they showed. It was just truly heroic the way they continued to press and find ways to push the game. It’s hard to not be unbelievably happy for my guys, but it’s also hard to not be sad for a team that put a ton of energy into the game.
“I think we worked really hard to prepare. I think if you prepare for a team that’s really good and has a lot of dangerous weapons all over the field and plays good soccer, it gets you a little bit sharper going into the game. My guys really get excited to play the best team in the league, and there’s no doubt that throughout the season Carolina was the best team in the league. Luckily, we really found ways to get results against them, and it happened again tonight.”
“Sometimes in life things just aren’t meant to go your way. Over the course of these two games, things could have easily gone our way and it didn’t for whatever reason. But, it was never a matter of a lack of team effort, it’s never been a lack of team chemistry, it’s never been a lack of desire, and it’s never been a lack of good players. It just wasn’t meant to be tonight. Unfortunately, that hurts and it’s painful, but that’s soccer. One of the reasons we love it is it can throw out great highs and it can hit you with real deep lows. You have to be able to handle both of those in life.
“As disappointing as tonight was, I hope they remember how good it’s been over the last three years. We’ve taken a team that had never finished above eighth and [become] a team that’s been a contender every year and put on great displays, especially at WakeMed. We’ve consistently won many games, and tonight we scored four goals. Hopefully, the fans will get behind the team as it grows and moves forward. The team’s in a strong position now to be the strongest team outside of Major League Soccer, and the fans are the ones who can make that happen.”