Photo courtesy of Carolina RailHawks
Lucky strike: Mkosana celebrates his go-ahead goal for the Tampa Bay Rowdies against the Carolina RailHawks Saturday evening at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC.
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Coming off an improbable and important road win against the New York Cosmos last week, the Carolina RailHawks returned to the erstwhile comfortable confines of WakeMed Soccer Park Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
However, Carolina stumbled out of the starting gate, eventually falling 4-3 to the Rowdies in a wet and wild match. It is Tampa Bay’s first regular season win over the RailHawks in Cary since May 2010, during its pre-Rowdies days when the team was named FC Tampa Bay.
The RailHawks, once unbeatable at their home roost, have lately been anything but. Saturday’s loss is their third at home out of their last four games in all competitions. Indeed, this defeat stings even more than the loss to lowly Indy Eleven to open the NASL fall season, which at least carried the excuse of being the third match in a week and the second in four days for a fatigued Carolina squad.
The Rowdies loss, on the other hand, comes on the heels of the win at New York, Carolina’s first road victory this year. It comes with a full week’s rest. And it comes at the outset of a pivotal homestand that has the RailHawks playing five of their next seven matches at home.
The Rowdies struck first and fast. In just the 3rd minute, forward Amani Walker got behind a napping RailHawks defense and gathered a through ball from Shane Hill that somehow split defenders Kupono Low and Conor Tobin, neither who appeared eager to clear the ball out of danger. Instead, Walker happily accepted the opportunity and slotted his shot past RailHawks goalkeeper Scott Goodwin for the instant lead. It was the first time Carolina surrendered a first half goal at home to an NASL opponent this year.
In the 10th minute, Tampa Bay replicated that feat from a free kick off the left flank by Keith Savage. Tamika Mkandawire got on the ball side of right back Jordan Graye in the six-yard box and managed a header deflection that settled into the far netting.
Meanwhile, an anemic RailHawks lineup accomplished little in the first half. It wasn’t until after intermission that Carolina regained their home mojo. In the 48th minute, Enzo Martinez laid a deft ball over to Zack Schilawski in the box. Schilawski blasted his shot past the ear of Rowdies keeper Matt Pickens to cut the advantage to 2-1.
“We put them under pressure and they turned the ball over,” Schilawski said. “Enzo gets the ball in the middle of the field and drives. He slipped me through a good ball, and I just tried to shoot it across the keeper into the far post.”
A mere three minutes later, Carolina earned their equalizer. This time, Schilawski returned the favor, laying the ball off to Martinez, who took a touch, found an opening, and let loose a low bounder that slid beyond the reach of a diving Pickens.
In so many similar situations, it is common to see the team that quickly surrendered their two-goal lead on the road to fold like an accordion, and for the team on their front foot to put their proverbial boot on the neck of a reeling opponent. But that didn’t happen Saturday, as the match settled into a back-and-forth affair once Carolina evened the score.
RailHawks manager Colin Clarke didn’t have an answer for why this happened. Schilawski had a hypothesis.
“Maybe psychologically we were thinking that we’re good now,” Schilawski wondered. “We got two and it’s all going to be easy now. And they responded well, and we didn’t keep doing the things that were giving us opportunities. Maybe psychologically when the momentum shifted we didn’t do a good job managing the game and making sure we stayed on the gas pedal.”
It wasn’t until the teams exchanged substitutions that the tide again turned against the RailHawks. On Carolina’s side, Ty Shipalane and an ineffectual Aaron King departed in the 70th and 74th minutes, making way for Daniel Jackson and Danny Barrera, respectively. Barrera was making his RailHawks’ debut, having arrived in Carolina’s camp only yesterday after being acquired from the San Antonio Scorpions in a midweek trade that sent Cesar Elizondo to the Scorpions.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay lifted Walker and Savage in the 71st and 72nd minutes, inserting Lucky Mkosana and recently-acquired Ricardo Morris.
The wisdom of Rowdies manager Ricky Hill’s changes was borne out in the 77th minute. A comedy of errors by the RailHawks’ defenders sparked Tampa Bay’s go-ahead goal. As Brian Shriver gathered a ball near a center field position, he inexplicably drew Graye toward him, leaving Morris unmarked on the left wing. Shriver looped a pass over the Morris, who drove toward the end line, requiring center back Daniel Scott to leave the box and attempt to close him down. Instead, Morris delivered a low cross that escaped Scott, then flew in front of Goodwin and onto the foot of a sliding Mkosana, who had position on left back Kupono Low in the goalmouth. Mkosana’s toe poke snuck into the net for a 3-2 lead.
Why did Graye wander toward Shriver 25 yards out when three other RailHawks were between Shriver and the goal? Why did Scott not close down Morris more forcefully? Why didn’t Goodwin dive out to deflect Morris’ cross before it reached Mkosana? Why didn’t Conor Tobin step in to clear out Morris’ cross himself?
As the RailHawks players and their 3,140 water-logged fans were still pondering these queries, Carolina made their final substitution in the 82nd minute, inserting Nick Zimmerman for Enzo Martinez. The result? Another Rowdies goal.
In the 84th minute, Tampa Bay dispossessed the RailHawks at midfield. With Graye pushed forward across midfield and trotting back into defense, the Rowdies again found Morris unmarked on the left wing. Before Graye could reach the midfielder, Morris delivered another low liner across the face of goal. This time Goodwin dove but fumbled his attempt to gather the ball, instead deflecting into the center of the box and a waiting Darel Russell, who one-touched a blast that rippled the nylon.
Schilawski—who was seen shouting at Graye after the Rowdies’ third goal—again offered his frank observation.
“I guess I’ll have to look at the film,” Schilawski said, “but it just seems like a ball’s laid across the box and for whatever reason their attackers are getting on the wrong side of our defenders … Maybe we were stretched because we were pushing numbers forward, but it just felt like guys getting on the wrong side of us in our box, which isn’t great.”
Just when the result appeared settled, the WakeMed magic seemed to materialize again for Carolina in the 86th minute. A loose ball in the box fell to Kupono Low, who delivered a low liner that deflected off defender J.P. Rodrigues and snuck inside the near post past a wrong-footed Pickens for a Rowdies own goal.
But any hopes for yet another RailHawks equalizer were dashed a minute later when an ill-advised slide tackle by Daniel Scott, already carrying a yellow card, earned him a second booking and a sending off. Carolina was down to 10 men and Scott is now suspended for next week’s home game against FC Edmonton.
Even still, the RailHawks manufactured one last stab at a draw. During the third of five added time minutes, Jun Davidson delivered a pinpoint long ball ahead to a streaking Jackson. The lanky striker gathered the ball near the end line, then laid it back to a driving Barrera. Barrera took a one-touch left-footed shot that a diving Pickens saved to preserve the Rowdies victory.
“It does help when we get the early goals like we were able to get tonight,” Hill said. “I think we’d conceded the first goal in eight straight games, so it was a welcome change to get the first goal. On the flip side, we conceded two goals after halftime. But I told the guys they showed great resilience today. They could have felt sorry for themselves and thought, ‘Here we go again.’ But they dug in and stayed together, and I think the substitutes came on and made an impact.”
Carolina plummets into 8th place in the NASL fall season standings. More importantly, the RailHawks slip out of the fourth playoff spot, one point behind Fort Lauderdale.
Two factors combined to bring about this RailHawks’ loss. The most obvious were rank defensive miscues that led to all four Rowdies goals, the sort of inconsistencies that typically rear their ugly head during Carolina road games. This was only the third time in club history the RailHawks allowed four goals in a regular season home match, the other two being a 4-1 loss to Miami FC on July 28, 2007 and a 4-4 draw with the Atlanta Silverbacks on April 14, 2012.
Moreover, on a broader level the RailHawks are again adjusting to midseason roster upheaval and having to develop chemistry with new teammates on the fly. It happened when Toni Stahl and Mike Grella joined the squad three games into the regular season. It happened again when both departed the team after the spring season. Now it’s happening again with the addition of Barrera and midfielder Gabe Latigue, the departure of Elizondo, and at least a couple of additional changes expected over the next week or so.
Some of the roster changes are unavoidable, and some are even desirable if not necessary. But with 12 games left in the regular season, it’s time for Carolina to find their lineup, their identity and, most importantly, some wins.