by Neil Morris
“That was a little like our defense,” Clarke deadpanned about the scattershot pyrotechnics. “All over the place.”
The last time the Strikers faced the RailHawks at WakeMed Soccer Park on May 2, the teams also played to a 3-3 tie, paced by a RailHawk brace, after one side overcame a 3-1 deficit with two second half goals. However, while the Strikers came from behind two months ago, this time it was the RailHawks that netted two goals in the final five minutes—including Mike Palacio’s second score and first assist of the match—to salvage a point.
The common denominators between the two games are a) the RailHawks dominance throughout the bulk of both contests, and b) the shockingly impotent Carolina defense. The second point is especially grievous as this is the first time Carolina has surrendered three goals in a match since the May 6 loss at Edmonton, (not coincidentally) the last game before the debut of Gale Agbossoumonde.
And like two months ago, the win was there for Carolina’s taking. The RailHawks raced into the 100-degree gametime heat in sync and firing on offense. But while Carolina monopolized possession throughout the opening 25 minutes, their abundant shots found the parking lot more often than the goal.
That finally changed in the 13th minute when Breiner Ortiz uncorked a low liner off the left flank that ricocheted off the right post to a waiting Palacio, who calmly deposited the rebound to give Carolina the early lead.
“I got the ball in the middle and played it out wide,” said Palacio. I had a feeling it was going to be a cross or shot, so [Ortiz] took a nice shot, hit the post and I just followed it up.”
While Carolina stayed on the attack, their finishing proved unreliable. Five different RailHawks took multiple first-half shots, with only Palacio’s putback finding nylon. This included Brian Shriver, sporting a right knee brace as the result of a recent MCL sprain, who showed good pace and intelligence all night but was uncharacteristically off-kilter with his aim.
With Carolina feeling their oats, Fort Lauderdale struck back in dramatic fashion. In the 31st minute, the RailHawks were too cute by half with a corner kick, playing the ball short and then sending a wayward cross over the box that the Strikers used to launch the first of numberous counterattacks. On the other end, Abe Thompson centered the ball for forward Darnell King who converted the easy equalizer.
The goal left Clarke beside himself.
“One of their goals comes from our corner kick,” he recounted after the match. “Take it short, you should take a touch and whip a good service into the box. We don’t, and they [go] down and score. That’s mental, concentration, whatever you want to call it.”
A mere 25 seconds after play resumed, the Strikers struck again. Thompson played a through ball ahead to Walter Restrepo, who navigated through Carolina’s back line unimpeded and slotted home the go-ahead goal past RailHawks’ goalkeeper Ray Burse.
By halftime, the RailHawks had outshot the Strikers 14-to-5 yet trailed by a goal. With paint undoubtedly peeled off their locker room walls, the RailHawks returned to the field a full five minutes before the end of intermission.
“We didn’t defend,” Clarke declared. “We were awful defensively in the first half. We controlled the first 25 minutes of the game. The game should have been over. We had six, seven chances, scored one but didn’t take the rest of them. And then defensively we were terrible on the two goals. All the sudden the momentum changes.”
While Carolina entered the second half with renewed purpose, their finishing remained erratic. Promising looks by Nick Zimmerman in the 49th and Ortiz in the 51st both went stratosphere. Meanwhile, Strikers’ goalkeeper Matt Glaeser was having a terrific game, making eight big saves on the night.
Then, in the 69th minute, Fort Lauderdale countered again. With Jason Garey and Ty Shipalane waiting to come on as second half substitutes, the Strikers blitzed the RailHawks’ tired defense with a sortie that ended with King playing the ball over to Restrepo in front of goal for another easy putaway.
With the RailHawks down two goals and desperately pushing forward, Fort Lauderdale continued to counterattack at will. However, like Carolina in the first half, the Strikers failed to put the game out of reach. Indeed, they squandered a number of end-to-end chances, particularly after Carolina subbed striker Brian Ackley for Cory Elenio, leaving only three players back on defense.
With Burse keeping the visitors at bay, Palacio notched his brace in the 86th minute to pull Carolina within a goal. A scrum in the box ended when the midfielder found the ball at his boot with open space between he and the net.
“I don’t even know what happened,” Palacio admitted. “It was all luck. [The ball] just came on my left foot and I dribbled to the left twice and just shot it hoping it was going in.”
Still, the clearly fatigued RailHawks appeared unable to muster one final chance. But that’s exactly what happened in the waning moments of full-time stoppage. Palacio came off the left wing and delivered an arcing cross that found Shipalane stationed far post. The speedy South African played the ball down and struck it true, adding to his previous heroics as a super sub against the LA Galaxy and Puerto Rico Islanders.
“I saw the play developing on the left-hand side, and [Palacio] had a good look,” Shipalane said. “Coach kept screaming, ‘Ty, get in the back post!’ As soon as I saw the ball coming, I made sure I got my composure and technique right. And then I just slotted it in between the goalkeeper’s legs.”
“Ackley made a great run across and took the center back with him and left Ty forward,” Palacio added. “It was wide open.”
“Once you get confidence in soccer anything is possible,” said Palacio. “I scored two goals today and felt like I could have scored more and had more assists. As we didn’t lose and we came from two goals behind in five minutes, that’s great. It boosts the whole team’s confidence. And we could have won today by four or five in the beginning. We just didn’t finish...it’s too hot, you know? Including myself...I’m dead.”
However, there was one person not sharing in the jubilation.
“You can look at it either way, glass half-full or half-empty,” Clarke sighed. “Their coach will be disappointed because they were 3-1 up. I’m disappointed because we didn’t finish the game in the first 30 minutes.”
The RailHawks (5-6-5, 21 pts.) now enter a two-week break sitting fifth in the NASL table. Their next match is July 21 when they host the Minnesota Stars FC.