by Neil Morris
For about 90-plus minutes Wednesday night in Cary, it looked as though history might repeat itself again. As with their Open Cup match last year, the RailHawks and Chivas USA entered the game’s latter stages tied 1-1. Yes, Carolina scored in the first half this year before Chivas equalized in the second, the reverse of last year’s order. However, that merely heightened the feeling that Chivas USA would, like last season, snag a stoppage-time goal to eek out a 2-1 victory at WakeMed Soccer Park.
But this year, Carolina withstood the late Chivas push and forced extra game. Galvanized by breaking the cycle, the RailHawks scored twice in overtime to defeat Chivas USA 3-1 and advance to the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open Cup.
The RailHawks started the game like so many before: letting Ty Shipalane introduce himself to the opposition. In the 13th minute, Brian Shriver smartly played a ball far ahead to a streaking Shipalane, who beat out-rushing goalkeeper Dan Kennedy to the roller. Shipalane rounded Kennedy and made a beeline for the open goal before calmly depositing into the same for the 1-0 lead.
For the remainder of the first half, Carolina failed to take further advantage of a visibly uninspired Chivas side. The closest came just before halftime, when Shipalane again got free in the box, but his angled shot flew across Kennedy but wide left.
Given a lease on life, Chivas settled in and had the better of the second half, outshooting the RailHawks 6-1. Chivas’ energy and some formation shifts that bolstered their defense paid dividends in the 57th minute, when a Carlos Alvarez free kick off the right flank found an unmarked Walter Vilchez in the goalmouth. Vilchez’s easy header equalized matters at 1-1.
But under a humid Carolina canopy, Chivas expended all three substitutions by the 66th minute. Their fresh legs set Carolina back on their heels for a time, but Chivas also failed to add to their goal tally. Meanwhile, the RailHawks were able to sub in midfielder Jonathan Greenfield for a cramping Justin Willis in the 80th minute. Floyd Franks slid to right back to replace Willis and the rested Greenfield took up station in the midfield, moves that stabilized both positions. And Cesar Elizondo came on in the 89th minute and was able to, well, you’ll see.
Both teams nearly scored game-winners during full-time stoppage. Chivas put a couple of headers on frame that appeared destined to cross the goal line, but RailHawks keeper Akira Fitzgerald saved the first attempt and midfielder Nick Millington—who played tremendous defense throughout the match—then cleared the orb off the line with mere millimeters to spare. The clearance eventually found Shipalane, who streaked 80 yards down the right side with nothing but emerald acreage in his path. Drawing the last defender, Shipalane centered to an unmarked Elizondo just after crossing midfield, but the angle of his pass broke Elizondo’s stride. Elizondo eventually got off a shot that was easily gathered by Kennedy.
Having avoided another stoppage time U.S. Open Cup loss to Chivas, the RailHawks made mincemeat of the Goats in extra time. In the 92nd, Greenfield played a perfectly weighted ball ahead to Shipalane, who pierced the right side of the box before centering to Elizondo. The Costa Rican’s one-touch flew past Kennedy to give Carolina a 2-1 lead to the boisterous delight of the 5,066 at WakeMed Soccer Park.
“It was a great ball from Jonathan,” Shipalane said, “and I think it was similar to the first goal where [the defense] was stretched out a little bit and I was able to slip in behind them. I took cut, got my head up and saw Cesar making a run on top of the box. I was able to cut it back to him, and he did a great job finishing it.”
With victory in their sights, the RailHawks struck again six minutes later. A Franks corner kick found second-half sub Brian Ackley cutting across the face of goal. His deflected header was true and gave Carolina the final 3-1 margin.
“Last year, we were disappointed that these guys kept us from achieving our goal,” Shipalane said. “This year, we made it a goal to get past this [round]. We weren't going to let them stop us.”
That included some heavy preparation for their MLS opponent.
“They were not good in the back,” Shipalane said in describing the crux of their pre-match Chivas scouting report. “This is a new team, new coach, and they’re still trying to work together from the back. So, there’s no good communication for them in the back, so we were able to expose them in the wide areas because they haven’t played well.”
Carolina's win combined with the Tampa Bay Rowdies' Open Cup loss at the Portland Timbers Wednesday night means the RailHawks advanced further than any other NASL club in the Open Cup and, consequently, wins $15,000.00 in prize money for that effort.
However, other looming mountains face the RailHawks. After a flight to face FC Edmonton this Sunday, Carolina will embark on the most pivotal part of their Spring season beginning June 22. That Saturday, it hosts Minnesota United FC, currently one point behind the league-leading RailHawks in the NASL standings. The following Saturday, the Atlanta Silverbacks, also only a point behind Carolina, will visit Cary. And in between those huge league matches, the RailHawks must now fly to Utah to face Real Salt Lake in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals on Wednesday, June 26. It's the furthest the RailHawks have gotten in the Open Cup since their 2007 semifinals run.
Will Carolina be ready for this arduous odyssey? You betcha, if you believe Colin Clarke.
“It’s what we’re here for; it’s what it’s about,” Clarke declared. “Getting to this stage of the season with a chance to win the [Spring] championship and a chance to advance further in the Open Cup. You can’t ask for any more than that.”