by Neil Morris
Despite playing a man up for nearly 50 minutes, the Carolina RailHawks found themselves facing a turning point in the NASL Spring season late in their match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies Saturday evening in Cary. At 9:05 p.m., Tampa Bay’s Devin Del Do scored a stunning 87th minute goal to give the outgunned Rowdies a 1-0 lead and an apparent improbable victory over the stymied and frustrated RailHawks.
Just over 380 miles away, the NASL table-topping Atlanta Silverbacks was leading FC Edmonton 1-0 late in their match. Those results, in combination Minnesota United FC’s win over Fort Lauderdale, would have put the RailHawks in 4th place in the league standings, two points behind Minnesota, three behind Tampa Bay and four behind Atlanta.
But, what a difference seven minutes can make.
Seemingly awoken by the prospect of suffering their first home loss this year in such crushing fashion, the RailHawks responded with two stoppage-time goals by Cesar Elizondo at 9:09 p.m. and Ty Shipalane at 9:12 p.m. to snatch a 2-1 win over the Rowdies out of the steely jaws of certain defeat.
Meanwhile, the Eddies snared an equalizer to draw with Atlanta 1-1. In the span of seven minutes, the RailHawks went from perhaps sliding out of contention for the NASL Spring championship to leapfrogging the Silverbacks and sitting once again atop the league table.
The RailHawks and Rowdies came in tied for second place in the standings. Moreover, the last four regular season matches between the clubs all ended in draws, dating back to September 3, 2011. So, both teams fielded full-strength squads for this important game, despite the fact that each will face MLS competition this Wednesday in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup. That said, the RailHawks were playing without suspended midfielder Floyd Franks and defender Kevin Rutkiewicz.
For the opening 37 minutes, the teams faced off as evenly-matched competitors. Each made forays into their respective attacking third, with Ty Shipalane generating the most early noise for the home side. However, the biggest fireworks came in the 32nd minute, when Tampa Bay’s Mike Ambersley connected a seemingly unprovoked elbow to the head of RailHawk Julius James, drawing a yellow card that could have easily been more punitive.
The tenor of the game changed in the 38th minute. An Eddie Ababio long ball over the top found a streaking Shipalane, who had gotten behind defender Andres Arango. Shipalane took a touch about 35 yards from goal, but was tripped from behind and taken down by Arango. Referee Daniel Radford showed Arango a straight red card for denying Shipalane a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
After the match, Rowdies manager Ricky Hill was analytical about the incident.
“[Shipalane] is on an angle, and we do have recovering center halves,” Hill said. “It’s down to the interpretation of the referee to whether he thinks that’s a clear goal-scoring opportunity. I would say it might have been a goal-scoring opportunity eventually, but at that moment I don’t know if it was clear one.”
RailHawks manager Colin Clarke was rather blunt in his surprisingly assessment.
“I don’t know if it was a red card,” Clarke said. “There was another defender there. But he gives it, and obviously it changes the whole complexion of the game.”
Carolina nearly took immediate advantage. The RailHawks centered the ensuing free kick to Brian Shriver stationed atop the penalty area. Shriver turned and shot, but his curler skimmed the crossbar.
From that point forward the RailHawks dominated possession and launched seemingly endless sorties at the Rowdies’ back line. Whereas Carolina had only five first-half shots, they took another 15 after intermission. But, the RailHawks’ first shot on frame didn’t come until Austin da Luz’s meek poke in the 48th minute.
The visitors managed to thwart Carolina’s repeated attacks, and visible frustration began to mount as the RailHawks gave away more chances.
“At halftime,” Hill said, “I felt that if we tried to maintain possession a little bit better than we did in the first half, even with 10 men, we could maybe create an opportunity and have a chance.”
That chance came in the 87th minute. After the RailHawks made a couple of offensive substitutions in search of the elusive go-ahead goal, Del Do gathered a long goal kick that eluded sleepwalking RailHawks defenders. Del Do rounded an out-rushing Akira Fitzgerald, who managed a hand on Del Do’s shot that did little to keep it out of the open goal.
As the 4,086 in WakeMed Soccer Park sat in stunned silence, a funny thing happened. The dormant RailHawks woke up.
“I think we were panicking at the end,” said a candid Shipalane. “But that’s what great teams do, they come back when they’re down. Honestly, I don’t think we would have won that game if we didn’t get scored on. So, it was a good thing we got scored on because it got us going, and then the guys realized we need to dig deep and that’s what our character is.
“It takes 90 minutes to win a game. Until the ref says the game is over it’s not over.”
Well, in this case more like 94 minutes. At the outset of four minutes of full-time stoppage, the left-footed da Luz delivered an in-swinging cross off the right flank. The looper found a leaping Cesar Elizondo, who had come on as a second-half substitute. The Costa Rican’s head met the ball the same instant his body met Rowdies’ goalkeeper Diego Restrepo. Elizondo’s header was true, and the game was tied 1-1.
“I had a good chance there,” Elizondo said. “I jumped as high as I could … When the keeper is coming for the ball it’s a little bit tough to get it because the keeper has the advantage of the hands. But sometimes you can jump first and use timing to win the head, and I think I did it well.”
Hill sensed the change in his team.
“When we scored,” he said, “sometimes it’s difficult, especially when there’s 10 men, subconsciously players start to defend their goal instead of defending outside of their box.”
As the clock ticked to full time, the RailHawks kept pushing for the game winner. It came at the death. Elizondo fed Shipalane atop the area, who turned and feigned a dribble to his right before cutting back left into the box, leaving defender Frankie Sanfilippo headed in the wrong direction. Shipalane steadied himself and took a shot that deflected off a sliding Jay Needham and past a misdirected Restrepo.
"Cesar did a good job splitting the defenders and they collapsed,” Shipalane recalled. “I was in the right spot, and I saw the ball coming to my feet, took a head up, looked at the goalkeeper and the defenders came rushing in. I just cut it to the left and took a nice turn, took a deep breath and then I just concentrated on sliding the ball into the goal.”
As the final whistle blew soon thereafter, a melee began when the Rowdies' Shane Hill appeared to take a swing at Elizondo. Players from both teams got involved, and in the aftermath Radford issued red cards to Hill and RailHawks bench player (and fellow Costa Rican) Jake Beckford.
“For us, it’s disappointing because we don’t have anything to show for a reasonable performance here and one where we felt we might have come away with something,” said Hill.
“Full credit to Tampa,” said Clarke. “They sat back and defended very, very well and made it difficult for us.
“At the end of the day it’s three points I think we deserve. So, we’ll take it and move on to the next one.”
That next one comes quickly, as the RailHawks hosts Chivas USA in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this Wednesday, June 12. Then next Sunday, Carolina flies to Edmonton for another pivotal league match.
With three games in the span of a week, Clarke says his RailHawks are focusing on the one thing they can control: themselves.
“We can’t worry about what other people are doing and other results,” Clarke said. “We take care of our results and we’ll be OK. We managed to do that tonight. It wasn’t how we wanted it to happen, but it happened. It was a fun night, and everyone has gone home with a smile on their face.”
Shipalane had another description for a season’s pendulum swinging in the span of seven minutes.
“It was breathtaking, I would say.”