A light but compact crowd gathered at Bull McCabe's in Durham on Friday night to watch the USL-1 Carolina RailHawks take on the Charleston Battery. It came as a surprise to some at the bar that such significant emotion could be generated for somthing that they did not heretofore know existed.
Yet, there it was, a handful of grown men screaming with arms raised when Matt Watson pulled the midfield lever that sent Hamed Diallo racing through to goal in the 8th minute.
Carolina had looked intent from the off, playing with an intensity and crispness that had been lacking throughout a woeful midseason stretch. Charleston, who had just given D.C. United everything they could handle in the U.S. Open Cup final, looked the lesser side here and it was no more than Carolina deserved when Kupono Low and Santiago Fusilier combined to spring Diallo again in the 24th minute. The man from Côte d'Ivoire slipped between two defenders and neatly slotted home his second. Charleston made it a real talon-biter late in the game but the Hawks clung to thier prey, claimed the Southern Derby cup for season-long supremacy over Atlanta and Charleston, showered, hopped in the bus and came back to Cary to welcome the Portland Timberrrrs.
Portland was already out of the playoffs, but Carolina had a chance—if the communicative and transitive properties picked a fight with Copernicus. Nealy 4,000 showed up to see it almost happen. Some of them were old enough to vote.
After an undramatic first half, the Railhawks first major surge into the Timbers' defense left "co-offensive player of the year" Fusilier sprawled in the box with the ref pointing a guilty finger to the penalty spot. Low stepped up and cooly slapped the ball off the right post. Incredulity reigned. Last week Low took a penalty that was just off the inside of the post, this week's was both marginally and massively different. The first dramatic act was over and the players began to warm to their roles.
Just two minutes after the fateful penalty, The Timber's aptly named (Leonard) Griffin sliced directly through Martin Nuñez with a studs-up two footed challenge that looked much like someone trying to cut down a tree with human legs. It was a foul begging for a direct red, but the ref vacillated, letting the mood come to a fine boil. As Carolina began to regain and maintain more and more possession, the crowd anxiously awaited the breakthrough. Balls flew into the box, corner after corner came, shots flew skyward, the momentum built.
Then in the 70th minute, justice was belatedly and finally served as Griffin received his second yellow. Now surely the goal would come. Steve Curfman came on for Eddie Gutierrez, attacker for defender in the 77th. More corners, more attempts at goal, more frustration. After solid buildup, Nuñez had a dropping ball to turn on inside 12 yards, but shot right at the keeper. Big David Stokes headed goal-ward and had his effort turned over. The pressure was nearly unbearable.
In a last ditch effort in extra time, Mauricio Segovia was sent in to get a head on things. As the final ball was lumped up the field, the Timbers goalie lost his nerve as the huge Chilean ran at him arms and legs akimbo, they both missed, the ball fell to Nuñez—who took a touch, waited for a defender to run himself out of the way, and slotted home the 93rd minute winner.
The stadium erupted, Swoops swooned, Nuñez tore off his shirt and jumped into the crowd.1-0, and just desserts.
This was a heroic effort from the 'Hawks who already have started refashioning the nest for 2009. Six points in 24 hours in two stadiums several hundreds of miles apart is no mean feat and they were able to show some glimpses of the possible future if they can hang onto this great core of players. Though they found out after the game that Minnesota beat Montreal and ended their playoff hopes anyway, it was a highly emotional and well-deserved victory with which to end the season.