by Neil Morris
Second was yet another Ty Shipalane showcase. Now firmly ensconced in the RailHawks' starting XI, the South African added a brace to his growing list of seasonal exploits as he paced Carolina to a 3-1 NASL playoff victory over the Strikers.
It was a match the RailHawks controlled from stem to stern, a surprising outcome given the Strikers were one of only two NASL teams Carolina had not defeated during the regular season (Tampa Bay, which drew with Carolina four times, being the other). The two matches between Carolina and Fort Lauderdale at WakeMed Soccer Park ended in 3-3 draws, with each team surrendering two-goal second-half leads. All year, the speedy Strikers and their potent offense simply matched up well with the RailHawks, a comparatively slower and weaker defensive side.
Unfortunately for Fort Lauderdale, their 1-0 win over the RailHawks in Florida on August 11 was the last game played with talented midfielder Walter Restrepo. Three of Restrepo’s six goals this season were scored in Cary against Carolina, along with one of his league-best eight assists. After losing Restrepo, the Strikers won only one of their final six regular season games (albeit against the league-leading San Antonio Scorpions).
“[Walter] Restrepo is a big part of their offense,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke after the match. “He’s a great player, probably one of the best players in the league. You lose someone like that it’s hard to replace midway through the season. So, it’s tough on them, but it’s things you have to deal with. I know they won’t make excuses, but it’s tough to lose someone like him who’s been very good all year.”
Still, the Strikers retained a formidable attack, including Mark Anderson, whose 11 goals were third-best in the NASL, Andy Herron (eight goals), Aly Hassan (six goals) and Abe Thompson (four goals).
However, it was the RailHawks who came out firing. A blast off the right wing from Shipalane just 24 seconds into the match set the tone. Fort Lauderdale’s task became even more difficult when they lost Herron to injury in the 18th minute.
A couple of questionable whistles by the officials, including a totally blown offsides call in the 23rd minute that denied Shipalane an unabated breakaway, sent Clarke into early hysterics and a prolonged conference with the fourth official, who shadowed and even embraced Clarke along the touchline for several minutes.
“I liked him because he’d talk to you,” Clarke said, his tongue only partly in cheek. “In these situations it’s tense, and I can be a little volatile at times. It’s nice that he’s sensible, puts his arm around you and has a chat.”
With each team looking to counterattack, Carolina got on the board first in the 34th minute. Jason Garey gathered a loose ball and made a break for goal. Eschewing a shot from the right side of the box, Garey pinwheeled in an attempt to find a better angle. However, he lost control of the ball and instead laid the ball off to Amir Lowery near the top of the box. With Strikers’ goalkeeper Matt Glaeser off his line, Lowery let loose a volley. Whereas so many of Lowery’s previous attempts from that spot this year landed closer to the parking lot than the goal, this laser pierced the back of the net to give the RailHawks a halftime lead.
Carolina picked up where it left off in the 52nd minute. A sublime build-up began with Shriver feeding Zimmerman in the box and ended with Nick Zimmerman laying the ball off to Shipalane, whose short-range blast deflected off Glaeser before finding twine.
“Shriver cut inside and gave it to Nick,” Shipalane recalled. “Great vision by Nick, and I was just at the right spot and made sure I finished the goal. Right on top of the box...I wanted to hit the target. Luckily enough I got a deflection and it went in.”
But with the ghost of two-goal leads past hovering amidst the mist, the Strikers struck back in the 61st. A terrific cross by Lance Laing off the left wing found Thompson stationed far post. The striker chipped the ball over an onrushing Burse to draw the visitors to within a goal.
However, that man Shipalane squelched any hopes of yet another comeback. Shriver played a seeing-eye through ball ahead of a streaking Shipalane, who dissected and beat two defenders to the ball before taking a nimble touch and slotting the ball past Glaeser for his second score.
“The second goal was all about making my run,” said Shipalane. “Shriver did a good job looking at the gap between the defenders because they leave too much space in between. All I had to do was take a great touch and just finish it off.”
After a stellar start to the campaign, Shriver’s contribution and presence faded due to a myriad of nagging injuries to his knee and back. However, Shriver is finally fit and appears to be regaining his early season form.
“It’s been good the past couple of weeks,” he said. “My body’s been feeling good coming off a couple of injuries I took in the middle of the season. I was out for three or four weeks once and a couple [more] weeks right after that. It definitely hurt my fitness and confidence. Now I’m feeling fit and playing well, and it doesn’t hurt when you’ve got guys who can give you the ball and put you in good spots.”
High on that roster of guys is Shipalane. Indeed, the combination of Shriver and Shipalane is now paying increasing dividends for the RailHawks during their stretch run.
“I think Ty and Brian did good tonight just with their enthusiasm,” Clarke said. “They’ve been training like that all week...they’ve been buzzing [and] flying all over the place like two racehorses you need to hold back to get them ready for Saturday. It showed tonight.”
The remainder of the match was an exercise in alternating counterattacks and meager finishing. The Strikers’ chances were snuffed out thanks to six saves by RailHawks goalkeeper Ray Burse. Meanwhile, Cory Elenio, Austin Da Luz and Shriver (twice) flubbed easy chances that could have made the final score more one-sided.
“We started off 4-4-2 tonight and changed to 4-3-3 after the half,” continued Clarke. “We threw a different look at them [and] I thought we needed to be better on the ball in the middle of the park. Maybe it worked a little bit, but in these games it not as much about tactics and shape. It’s about who wants it the most, who’s prepared to die and go out there and give their all. And our boys did that tonight.”
The RailHawks will host the first game of a two-legged semifinal next Saturday, October 6 at WakeMed Park. Their opponent will be determined by the outcome of the other quarterfinal match between the Puerto Rico Islanders and Minnesota Stars. If the Islanders hold serve at home, Carolina will face the regular season champion San Antonio Scorpions; if Minnesota wins, the RailHawks will face the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Either way, Clarke likes his team’s chances based on their performance Saturday night.
“It’s playoff soccer. It’s tough, it’s not easy. You’re here in a win-or-go-home situation, and they proved tonight they have a chance to win the championship.”