by Neil Morris
Indeed, the RailHawks had every expectation they could avenge the 1-0 loss to San Antonio back on April 28. Carolina came in on a three-game winning streak, including road wins at Atlanta and, most notably, Puerto Rico. The team has been displaying aggressive, positive soccer entering the season’s end stretch, and it held self-declared aspirations of not only going unbeaten for the rest of the regular season but perhaps making a run at the top spot in the NASL table.
Unfortunately, the affect and energy of the RailHawks side that finally took the field following a 90-minute weather delay (the third such this season in Cary) was not of a team looking to compensate for a one-goal loss in April but one still petrified of the side that trounced them 8-0 a little over a month ago in San Antonio. Consequently, April’s result remained intake as the Scorpions again downed the RailHawks 1-0 off an 84th minute goal from Jeff Cunningham.
Weather delays have become so ubiquitous this year at WakeMed Park that their reoccurrence no longer merits first paragraph mention. Suffice it to say that the spectacle of the grounds crew squeegeeing standing rainwater off the southeast corner of the otherwise pristine pitch was more lively than the game that subsequently replaced them.
In truth, it was providence that San Antonio didn’t notch a goal as early as the 3rd minute, when Esteban Bayona uncorked his first of three errant shots. Indeed, the Scorpions (13) and RailHawks (12) combined for 25 total shots, but only a paltry four remained on target (Carolina’s lone contribution being a harmless roller from Nick Zimmerman in the 34th minute). Carolina didn’t earn a corner kick until the 53rd minute. On the other hand, both teams exceeded in foul accumulation, with the RailHawks leading the way with 14 to San Antonio’s nine.
Indeed, the closest Carolina came to scoring was when they nearly netted an own goal off one of Walter Ramirez’s numerous crosses, a calamity averted thanks to the quick reflexes of RailHawks goalkeeper Ray Burse.
The Scorpions’ breakthrough finally came in the 84th minute. Cunningham, who entered the game only four minutes earlier, settled into space atop the 18-yard box and accepted a low cross from Ramirez off the right wing. With the RailHawks’ defenders not marking the leading scorer in MLS history, the 36-year-old striker calmly one-touched the ball past a wrong-footed Burse into the right netting. Cunningham celebrated defiantly, still irritated at being inserted into the game so late. That contrasted with the ebullience of Scorpions owners Gordon Hartman, who was in attendance and watching from the RailHawks owner’s box (hey, someone may as well use it).
“My teammate did a good job isolating the defender,” Cunningham said. “He gave me a great ball, great weight on it. Thank God the pitch was in good condition, there wasn’t any bumps on it so the ball stayed perfectly well. It caught my foot in the direction where the goal is and caught the goalie going the other way a little bit.”
It was the first NASL goal for Cunningham, who joined the Scorpions in late July after a six-month stint with CSD Communicaciones in Guatemala.
“I love football and the ability to play at 36,” he continued. “This was an opportunity to play, and I’m very grateful to the coach and the organization for giving me a chance to play. Honestly, when I got back from Guatemala there wasn’t much interest, so I’m very grateful to get a chance. I want to prove my ability to my teammates and coach so much that a lot of pressure I put on myself. Maybe that’s why it took a long time for the goal to come. After tonight, hopefully I can get some more.”
RailHawks manager Colin Clarke, whose RailHawks squad includes at least 15 players who were once part of MLS and European rosters, expressed muted praise for the Scorpions.
“They’re a good team,” said Clarke. “They’re a team where most of them have played at a high level. You can see why they’re top of the league right now...They spent a lot of money putting together a very experienced squad, and that shows.”
Meanwhile, the RailHawks were saddled with a decidedly neutered offensive attack. Brian Ackley, who notched goals in Carolina’s two latest road victories, was out with an injury. Jason Garey was serving a one-game red card suspension. Brian Shriver started but is still clearly hobbled by a lingering leg/knee injury. And although Zack Schilawski was credited with two shot attempts, I have no memory of either.
What’s more, Carolina was conspicuously without the services of Gale Agbossoumonde, who was suspended from last week’s game at Puerto Rico due to yellow card accumulation. Agbossoumonde, who was spied in street clothes prior to the game, was not injured. Clarke said he simply wanted to go with Stockley and King, who played well against the Islanders last week. However, that does not explain why Agbossoumonde was completely left off the gameday roster, a reason Clarke was unwilling to provide.
“We felt going into the game that we still had a chance to go with first place; we get a result tonight and it would have put us in a good position,” said Clarke. “But, it’s not to be...We weren’t good enough with the ball in the final third first half, second half we were a little bit better, and then you leave one of the leading goal scorers in the country wide open in the box with seven minutes to go and you get punished.”
The lone positive development for the RailHawks occurred around 10:25 p.m. and over 1,200 miles away when FC Edmonton’s 1-1 draw at the Minnesota Stars clinched an NASL playoff berth for the RailHawks. Carolina currently sits fifth in the regular season standings with four games remaining. However, lingering hopes of rising to the third or fourth spot in order to host the first-round playoff game, or even second-place to earn a first-round bye, are tempered by the reality that three of the RailHawks’ final four games are on the road, and three of those four are against San Antonio (once) and second-place Tampa Bay (twice). Moreover, Saturday’s loss was the start of a five-game, two-week stretch for Carolina, whose remaining itinerary has them flying to Edmonton this Wednesday, San Antonio next Sunday, and Tampa Bay next Wednesday before finally returning to WakeMed Park on April 22 for the regular season finale against the Rowdies.