WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—It was a muted opening night, with up-and-down soccer and a light crowd of 2,927. The most noise came during the first half, from the visiting North Carolina A&T University marching band's drumline, which also livened up the halftime break.
Happily, the pitch was dry this time, unlike the underwater conditions of the two preseason matches against the New Revolution Revolution and CD Olimpia.
Perhaps compounding the atmospheric challenges in the stadium was the fact that the starting lineup consisted of 11 newcomers to Cary. Those fans who are only now tuning in would have recognized only substitutes Caleb Norkus and Hamed Diallo in uniform. Surprisingly, considering his ubiquity in the preseason, RailHawk stalwart Kupono Low was left off the lineup. [Ed. Note: See comments.]
But whether they recognized the players or not, those who were there saw the 2009 RailHawks step to the top of the league table with a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Thunder. "it wasn't pretty," was the widespread overheard assessment after the game, "but it counts."
As Gavin Glinton, who scored the not-pretty-but-it-counts winner in the 56th minute, said, "It's important to get points early [in the season]."
Probably the biggest pleasure afforded by this game was the havoc central defender Mark Schulte created everywhere on the field. As Chris Gaffney noted in the Indy's preview, Schulte possesses a huge throw-in from the sideline, which tonight had the practical effect of doubling the seven corner kicks his team had.
Schulte got the first goal, in the 12th minute, that began with his throw-in from about 25 yards up the right sideline. The Thunder, respecting his strength, sat back in the box. Schulte's long delivery into the area popped back out to him, all alone. Schulte took a look, saw a gaping tunnel of space that led to the left side of the net, and crushed the ball.
The opening minutes were sloppy, but Carolina was getting the best of the possessions. Unfortunately for the game's quality, the Thunder's Brian Kallman was issued a straight red for a bit of butchery on John Gilkerson in the 22nd minute. Even more unfortunately, the unmanned Thunder responded with a burst of energy and creativity. Five minutes after Kallman's banishment, the Minnesota's dangerous striker, the Liberian Melvin Tarley, worked a give-and-go with Rod Dyachenko that resulted in a shot to the roof of the net. 1-1. "[Tarley] had nothing, and he put it in," Schulte marveled afterward.
Glinton's winner came just four minutes after he entered the game. Mark Schulte's throw-in led to a shot from the top of the box from Daniel Paladini that was deflected up and over the Thunder's redoubtable goalkeeper, Nic Platter. Platter backpedaled furiously and leaped to the right corner and seemed to punch the ball safely out of play and even hung on to the post. But Glinton was there, too, "in full force," he said. Somehow he got the ball to the back of the net.
2-1, Carolina, and three points. In full force.
Afterward, Rennie acknowledged that his team is still a work in progress, but was nonetheless pleased. "Soccer is about creating chances," he said.
Indeed, the team's attack, led by Sallieu Bundu in the middle and Josh Gardner and Luke Kreamalmayer on the wings, outshot the Thunder 17-10. But that figure doesn't reflect the number of crosses sent in from the wings—and also from overlapping runs from wingbacks Gilkerson and Devon McKenney—that sailed through the box but failed to find a RailHawk waiting to redirect it.
Still, the important thing for this team is that those chances are there. On other nights, there will be RailHawks on the other end of those crosses.
On the roster front, two new names appeared Saturday night: strikers John Cunliffe of Bolton, England and Andriy Budnyy of Chernivtsi, Ukraine. However, team publicist Marco Rosa said neither was "announced." That could mean any number of things. Hopefully, the coming week will shed light on the final two roster slots.
And, midfielder Matt Watson, last year's team MVP, will return to the team this week after finally completing his indoor season with the Baltimore Blast. It will be interesting to see how he integrates into a team he will barely recognize.
Only two other USL-1 teams were in action tonight: The visiting Charleston Battery extracted a goalless draw from defending USL champs Vancouver Whitecaps.
Next up for the ’Hawks: a road trip to USL-2 Wilmington on Tuesday and a return to Cary Saturday, April 18 against the Rochester Rhinos.