by Neil Morris
Inspired by the savory aromas, the RailHawks served an offensive feast for the 2,718 fans who ventured out for the midweek match. Unfortunately, Carolina’s rancid defense whipped up another unpalatable course, twice surrendering two-goal leads in the second half en route to a disappointing 3-3 draw, extending the club's season-opening winless streak to six games.
Nick Zimmerman notched a brace to give him four goals on the year, second-most in the NASL, while Brian Shriver scored his third goal of 2012. For the season, Zimmerman and Shriver account for seven of Carolina’s nine goals.
On the other hand, Carolina have now allowed a league-worst 12 goals and a flabbergasting 85 shots in six games. And as in the 4-4 draw with Atlanta on April 14, Carolina failed to hold a two-goal lead at home against a team they dominated for long stretches of the match.
Sam Stockley started at center back in place of the injured Austen King. Cory Elenio resumed at right back in place of an injured Greg Shields. And Cary native Zack Schilawski, who signed with Carolina last week, received his first start of the season.
The game opened with some bits of foreshadowing. In the 12th minute, Aly Hassan, the Strikers’ leading scorer, penetrated through the heart of the RailHawks’ back line, giving himself a one-on-one opportunity that he clanged off the base of the left post. Then, defender Lance Laing delivered a long-range blast during the run of play in the 22nd minute that sailed just right of goal.
Still, Carolina kept most of the possession and slowly began to create chances. They finally broke through in the 40th minute when Shriver found himself in the right place inside the box and jumped on a loose ball, depositing it into the net to give the home side a 1-0 advantage.
In the 47th minute, a short Shriver cross found an unmarked Zimmerman standing in the goalmouth. The Tampa native converted the easy putaway to give Carolina a 2-0 lead.
However, there’s an adage that a 2-0 lead is the most dangerous in soccer. On cue, the Strikers opened their account in the 61st minute. Laing let loose a 30-yard laser off a free kick that sailed over the RailHawks diminutive wall and past the reach of goalkeeper Ray Burse.
RailHawks manager Colin Clarke, perhaps sensing a premonition, was visibly dissatisfied with his team’s set-up.
“I like for my wall to jump when the kick’s being taken,” said Clarke, “and I’m not sure if they did and I like to have a little more height in there. The personnel in the wall weren’t big enough to make it more difficult for [the kicker] … It was a great free kick, though.
“We were two-nil up and we’re playing well, and very close to being three,” continued Clarke. “But once they made it 2-1 it becomes a mental thing for some of [the RailHawks] because, ‘Here we go again...’”
Perhaps sensing a rising tide of trepidation, Zimmerman did his best to assure Carolina of their first win. In the 65th minute, he slipped past the Strikers’ center backs and attempted to chip the ball over goalkeeper Matt Glaeser. Glaeser swatted the shot, but the rebound again found Zimmerman who maneuvered around the prone keeper and netted the open goal to again give Carolina a two-goal lead.
With fans salivating over the prospect of a three-point entree, the Strikers’ Wálter Restrepo struck back a mere two minutes later. Driving single-handedly past the left half of Carolina’s back line, Restrepo sent a blast across the keeper and into the left netting to again pull Fort Lauderdale to within a goal.
Then, in the 76th, the RailHawks failed to close down second half substitute Mark Anderson, who uncorked a 30-yard golazo that curled into the right postage stamp beyond Burse’s mitts and equalized the match at 3-3.
The closing minutes comprised each team exchanging chances. Fort Lauderdale drove with impunity past the RailHawks’ meager defenses, and only some solid saves by Burse kept Carolina from falling behind. Meanwhile, Shriver and substitute Ty Shipalane conjured a couple of unrequited opportunities in the waning moments. In the end, the mere, inexplicable two minutes of full-time stoppage may have been a blessing in disguise for the embattled home side.
“Devastated,” responded a despondent Shriver when asked for his reaction to the outcome. “We had a two-goal lead and let it slip away. It’s tough when you drop points at home, especially when we played well. We got up on them and we just couldn’t hold it. It’s frustrating, but at the same time it’s a long season. We know we’re more than capable of winning these games. It’s just got to start clicking for us.”
Over the course of the young season, the patent problems along the RailHawks’ defense have been referenced in oblique terms by players and coaches alike. Following Wednesday’s result, any pretense of diplomacy evaporated into the humid Cary night air.
“Defensively we’re giving up too many goals, and that’s everybody,” said Clarke. “I’ve got to go look at some things and make some decisions.”
“Defensively, one through 11, from Ray [Burse] all the way up to me, obviously we’re not where we want to be,” said Schilawski, the newbie exercising some modicum of tact.
“Without looking at the goals, I put it on myself and the guys that are with me on the back four, and nobody else,” said left back and team captain Kupono Low. “We all have to look at ourselves, especially the back four, and see what we can do better.”
Fans and coaches are eagerly anticipating the debut of center back Gale Agbossoumonde, the former U.S. youth international who is back to full training after a prolonged recovery from turf toe and hopes to be match fit within the next two weeks.
However, the back line’s fissures are deeper and more fundamental than one 20-year-old can fill. The RailHawks’ current roster options are limited but changes must be made and soon, whether it’s inserting reserve defenders James Scott and Justin Willis to see how they perform or shifting Amir Lowery to center back. And the time to be overly selective with defensive prospects has long past, whether it’s former U.S. youth international Šaćir Hot and recent Columbus Crew draftee Jamie Finch, both of whom trained with the RailHawks during the past several weeks, or simply rummaging through the desk drawer to find Devon McKenney’s phone number.
Amazingly, Carolina is still trying to replace 6-foot 4-inch center back and team captain Brad Rusin, who left the RailHawks last July after their incomparable 10-game winning streak. Since Rusin’s departure, Carolina’s record (including playoffs) is six wins, six draws and 10 losses.
This season, Carolina has as many points (two) from their three away games as their three home matches. Indeed, the five points Carolina left on the WakeMed Park pitch as a result of their giveaway draws with Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale plus their inexcusable loss to San Antonio are the difference between the RailHawks being near the bottom of the league table and sitting alone in second place.
“I’m disappointed for the fans who came in with numbers again tonight and have shown great support for all three games at home,” Clarke said. “We haven’t won one yet and that’s hurting.”
Carolina now takes to the road for their next two games, starting with a sojourn to cellar-dwelling FC Edmonton this Sunday. After a stopover at the always tough Minnesota Stars, the RailHawks play back-to-back home matches against league-leading Puerto Rico on May 19 and June 2 before hosting the pesky Stars on June 9.
For now, the RailHawks must fix what’s broken, including their winning spirit.
“The last three seasons, we’ve always put out a team on the training ground and the [game] field where we were always confident we were going to win,” reflected Low. “We felt like we were the best team in the league the last three years. Breakings records, MVPs, defensive players of the year and guys going to MLS … we felt we had the quality. And we do here now, and I think if we all trust each other and know and believe that we have that just like the last three season, then it’ll click.”