Carolina RailHawks go to Florida to die as Tampa Bay Rowdies advance to NASL championship

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Amir Lowery of the Carolina RailHawks faces off with Rowdies midfielder Shane Hill on Sept. 22 in Cary, N.C.
  • Chris Baird
  • Amir Lowery of the Carolina RailHawks faces off with Rowdies midfielder Shane Hill on Sept. 22 in Cary, N.C.
AL LANG STADIUM/ST. PETERSBURG—Another game, another draw between the Carolina RailHawks and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Unfortunately for the lads from Cary, last Saturday’s 2-1 home loss gave the Rowdies the advantage they needed to eke out a 5-4 aggregate victory in their two-legged NASL semifinals.

While Tampa Bay sported the same starting XI as last Saturday, the RailHawks made three changes. Greg Shields’ fractured ribs were evidently not as serious as Jordan Graye’s groin injury suffered last weekend, so Shields returned to right back. Gale Agbossoumonde got the nod in place of Richmond Kickers loanee Henry Kalungi, who was away on international call up for Uganda. And Orlando City loanee Matt Luzunaris was penciled in over Jason Garey.

The changes paid quick dividends in the 14th minute. After a sure shot from the Rowdies’ Luke Mulholland careened off the crossbar, it triggered a RailHawks counterattack that ended with Floyd Franks playing a through ball ahead to Luzunaris. The striker slotted the ball past NASL Best XI goalkeeper Jeff Attinella to draw the aggregate score even.

Four minutes later, Carolina went ahead when Ty Shipalane won a race with Attinella to a bounding ball near the top of the box. Shipalane poked the orb ahead and it trickled into the netting to put Carolina ahead 3-2.

A few more chances would come Carolina’s way, notably another Shipalane chip in the 33rd minute that flared wide left. But the next goal went to Tampa Bay after Shipalane was whistled for a penalty for a take down just inside the box. Midfielder Shane Hill took and buried the penalty kick to draw the clubs even on aggregate entering intermission.

In the 54th minute, a cross from Kupono Low off the left wing found a leaping Luzunaris, but he directed his point-blank header right of goal. With the RailHawks’ defense being misdirected at will, the Rowdies took the lead in the 65th minute when Mike Ambersley jumped on one of countless loose balls in the box, slamming it out of the scrum and past RailHawks goalkeeper Ray Burse.

An Amir Lowery header in the 81st off a RailHawks’ corner appeared destined for net until Stuart Campbell cleared away the threat with millimeters to spare. Three minutes later, the Rowdies seemed to put the game away when a grounder off the right wing from Keith Savage navigated its way past Carolina’s defenders and onto Mulholland’s waiting foot. His shot was deflected by Burse, but the England native lept on the rebound and completed the score to put Tampa Bay up by two.

A handball penalty against Tampa Bay in the 86th minute allowed Nick Zimmerman—an NASL Best XI teammate of Attinella and Mulholland—to convert his own PK and draw the RailHawks within a goal. But 5-4 would be where the scoring would stand, as the RailHawks fall in the league semifinals for the second consecutive season.

In many ways, the result was an encapsulation of the RailHawks’ 2012 campaign: flashes of offensive potency—punctuated by goals from Zimmerman and Shipalane—undercut by an erratic, inadequate defense.

Tampa Bay will have to wait until tomorrow’s semifinal finale between the San Antonio Scorpions and Minnesota Stars to determine who they will face in the NASL finals beginning next weekend. As for the RailHawks, a roller-coaster season ends without the championship that first-year manager Colin Clarke announced he aimed to deliver during the press conference announcing his hiring last December.

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