by Neil Morris
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY—It was a night of replacements for the Carolina RailHawks' final match this season against the Portland Timbers: A substitute field, several mainstays in each teams' lineups out due to injuries and/or fatigue, and a lifelong sports fan yet soccer novice making his debut with Triangle Offense's local futbol coverage.
The patchwork Field 2 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, again being used in place of the main stadium field during its turf replacement process, was, as goalkeeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell succinctly put it, "terrible." Still, with ominous lightning clouds encroaching, the RailHawks managed to stave off a game, aggressive Portland squad and eke out a 0-0 draw.
Against the backdrop of stately pines encircling the perimeter of Field 2, the Timbers stood as tall as sequoias throughout a first half during which they dominated time-of-possession and extended a counterattacking defense that constantly stymied the Railhawks' offensive rhythm. The Timbers' midfielders seemingly cut at will through Carolina's defense like a chainsaw through lumber. So conspicuous was Portland's ball control that in the latter stages of the half, a young boy not more than 12 years old turned around to inform me that, "They're playing too much on this half of the field."
Still, playing without their injured leading scorer Ryan Pore, Portland only managed six shots on goal during the opening stanza, the closest being a header that fell meekly into Patterson-Sewell's mitts during the 20th minute. On the opposite side, the best of Carolina's three shots came when a rocket boot from Sallieu Bundu in the 32nd minute sailed wide of the mark.
The second half brought about two oddities. The first was a dubious straight red card assessed against RailHawks left wing John Cunliffe in the fourth minute of the half, for a challenge to the Timbers' Mamadou Danso. It left the RailHawks with 10 men for the last 41 minutes of the match. Second, curiously, was a renewed sense of offensive energy by the RailHawks, which, not coincidentally, seemed to ignite with the entrance of the steady Daniel Paladini at minute 68, followed 10 minutes later with the insertion of Joseph Kabwe and his fancy, fleet-of-footwork.
(For the first time this season, neither Matt Watson nor Paladini was in the starting lineup. Paladini was relegated to the bench while Watson was inactive due to either fatigue or a tweaked knee suffered during Tuesday night's match against Richmond, depending on whom you ask. For his part, Coach Martin Rennie explained, "We've got five games in 11 days. If we play the same guys for every game, in the end the guys will be dead and we won't have a good season. And, I don't think it took anything away from the team tonight.")
The second half featured a more back-and-forth flow, with missed opportunities on each end of the field. In the 70th minute, a 40-yard free kick by Carolina's Kupono Low cleared a forest of Timbers only to rebound off the crossbar. Later, a rainbow free kick by Paladini bounced off the caliche only to hop over both the goalie and the crossbar.
"All the credit to them," said a disappointed team captain Mark Schulte. "They came out hard, they defended well, they counterattacked with a vengeance, and we just couldn't find a way to put [the ball] in."
The RailHawks (7-2-2) end their three-game season set against Portland (5-1-4) with two draws and a loss. "This is two of the best teams in the league, so it's not going to be a wide-open game with lots of chances," remarked Rennie. (Indeed, the Portland franchise is slated to join MLS in two years.) And, although "never" was Schulte's one-word response when asked whether he could be happy with a draw at home with a man-down for nearly the entire second half, Low was a bit more upbeat. "We definitely came out for the second half a lot more ambitious and more on the attack. In the end, we had a clean sheet and picked-up a point [in the league standings] with a man down."
The RailHawks next travel to Minnesota for a Sunday afternoon game against the cellar-dwelling Thunder before returning to Cary next Tuesday, June 16 for the US Open Cup second-round match against the Wilmington Hammerheads. If the RailHawks defeat the Hammerheads, they'll play the Chicago Fire in Round 3, June 30, in Cary.
Box score here.