by Neil Morris
Although the newly expanded WakeMed Soccer Park was unveiled at last month’s friendly between the RailHawks and Vancouver Whitecaps, the Pumas match provided the first true opportunity for the facility to flex its logistical muscles. The night after approximately 1,000 curious observers ventured out to watch an early evening Pumas practice session, a new RailHawks home attendance record 8,054 (mostly Pumas) partisans packed the park, filling seats from the outer reaches of the North Stand to the top tier of the upper deck. With a nip in the air, noisemakers—both human and artificial—rang out from end zone to edifice, usually in service to Club Universidad. And those who couldn’t make it to the game had the opportunity to view the first match of the new year broadcast locally on WRAL2 and 99.9-HD3 under an expanded TV and radio partnership between the RailHawks and Capitol Broadcasting Company.
Lest there be any doubt, the RailHawks was the outclassed side, beaten throughout the match in both possession and potency. Pumas came out in a 3-5-2 formation, which provided it with firepower upfront but also afforded room for the RailHawks to operate those fleeting times Carolina was able to breach the midfield fortifications.
Several early inroads into the RailHawks’ defensive third culminated in auspicious fashion for Carolina in the 16th minute. Floyd Franks attempted to clear a cross from Emilio Orrantia, but Franks’ sidelong deflection from outside the box looped over the diminutive reach of Carolina goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald before glancing off the side post and into goal. A more deft strike from Franks I can barely recall, notwithstanding intent or target.
The RailHawks nearly struck back in the 22nd, when Zack Schilawski found himself with the ball and space about 19 yards out. However, his left-footer bounded inches wide of the far post. In 31st minute, Ty Shipalane penetrated the box and unleashed an angled screamer that was blocked by Pumas keeper Alfredo Saldivar. The rebound found Schilawski’s waiting foot, but he somehow made a mess of the short-range sitter.
In the 41st minute, a lazy giveaway by Shipalane in the backfield triggered a Pumas break. Alfonso Nieto laid the ball off to Juan Pablo Rodriguez, who calmly slotted home his shot for a 2-0 Pumas advantage.
A minute later, however, the RailHawks finally joined the festivities. Schilawski and Shriver played one-two, culminating with Shriver playing through ball ahead to Schilawski, who nudged the ball past an out-rushing Saldivar and across the goal line.
Pumas outmanned a gassed RailHawks squad after halftime, attempting 11 shots in the second half alone. Only five saves from Fitzgerald and some poor Pumas finishing kept the goal difference at one. Carolina’s best chances to equalize started in the 60th minute, when Shipalane received a long ball from Schilawski along the right wing and maneuvered around his defender before depositing a left-footer that he pushed barely wide. Four minutes later, midfielder Nick Millington gathered a loose ball about 25 yards out and delivered a strike that misdirected off the head of a Pumas defender before ricocheting off the left post.
According to RailHawks manager Colin Clarke, his team’s slow start wasn’t a case of nerves.
“We started the game—scared is not the word—but just apprehensive,” Clarke said. “But once we settled down...we were very good.”
Defender Austen King—who Clarke singled out as the top RailHawk for the game—had a different take.
“We thought they were going to play a 4-4-2 but ended up pushing three forward in the first half, so that caught us a little off-guard,” King explained. “Pumas has a ton of attacking power, and it was good test for us.”
Carolina played without several injured regulars, including strikers Nicholas Addlery and Brian Ackley. Recent addition Julius James, a center back formerly with the Columbus Crew, started and played 18 minutes before reaggravating a hamstring injury. After the match, Clarke said he expects to add at least a couple of additional players to the roster soon, including a much-needed center back.
Tonight's attendance breaks the previous club record at WakeMed Park of 7,939, set just last June during Carolina's U.S. Open Cup victory over the L.A. Galaxy. Of course, those RailHawks records are due in most part to their opponents' popularity. The next level is drawing similar attendances because of the home team's cache.
While Carolina probably didn’t create many converts against Pumas, perhaps they recruited a few future customers.
“[The crowd] was superb,” Clarke observed. “You’d love to feel that some of them will come back. I know the majority were here to watch Pumas, and we understand that. But, you’d love to think that they’ve seen us and know that we can play, and we’d love to have some of them come back on a regular basis to support their local team."