WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—What happened Tuesday night? That's the question. The U.S. Cup dream—an important priority for the RailHawks organization—is dashed for this season, thanks to the gutsy, irreverent and opportunistic play of the Wilmington Hammerheads. There's no doubt that the RailHawks took Wilmington seriously, but still—no one thought they'd actually lose this second-round game.
And now the only way the Chicago Fire will come near Cary is if they have to connect to Wilmington at RDU.
The game itself was a wild one that featured 33 shots, with at least three that clanged off the cage. Wilmington scored first, and after the RailHawks equalized, Wilmington again took the lead in extra time. But after the RailHawks rallied for the second time—on a Gavin Glinton goal from an Amir Lowery flick of a Mark Schulte throw-in—and went ahead 3-2 in the 118th minute, fans and media began packing it in.
I folded up my notebook and walked down to the field to wait for the final whistle. I wasn't the only one: Aside from the moans of the 50-strong contingent of blue-clad Wilmington supporters, the atmosphere was one of relief that the home side had survived this second round scare. An unexpectedly long Tuesday night seemed to be drawing to a close with the rightful winner prevailing.
But there was one problem: The Hammerheads were still playing.
The evening unraveled in the 120th minute, with about 15 seconds remaining on the watch of referee Mark Kadlecik. There was a seemingly routine foul just on the Hammerheads side of midfield along the touchline. Wilmington right back Jarritt Thayer took a quick, long kick that went forward to the head of Tim Karalexis, who flicked it on to second-half substitute Kenny Bundy. Bundy volleyed in the equalizer with the outside of his right foot. Three touches, and it was 3-3. [See highlights at usllive.com; registration required.]
It was surreal—a basketball-style buzzer beater against what has been one of the stoutest defenses in USL soccer.
It seemed that the RailHawks were too stunned to pull the game back in the ensuing penalty kicks. Two of the steadiest RailHawks blew their kicks: Daniel Paladini missed the first, and captain Schulte missed the last one, his stutter step leaving Hammerhead keeper Daryl Sattler's feet firmly planted. Meanwhile, RailHawks keeper Caleb Patterson only managed to get close to one of the four balls that the Hammerheads gleefully sent past him.
Afterward, coach Martin Rennie would complain that a) there should have only been one extra minute of stoppage time, not two, and b) Thayer's quick kick was too quick—the ball was still moving. Patterson echoed the latter point, too.
But Rennie made it clear. "They deserved to win. We didn't play well."
The RailHawks players who spoke to reporters were stunned, confused and angry. Patterson, as straight a shooter as you'll find on the squad, was particularly livid—at his defense, and himself. Schulte, too, was furious.
With good reason: The Hammerheads were able to beat the RailHawks defense again and again. If Patterson hadn't made a handful of electrifying saves, and if the Hammerheads' Thayer, Mark Briggs and Jamie Watson had managed to connect on their near misses, Wilmington could have had six or seven goals.
Most worrisome, though, is that the Hammerheads scored two goals on set pieces through one of the largest defensive lines in the two USLs, one that had cruised through the first two months of its schedule. And there's no getting around the fact that the RailHawks' defense, which earlier this season went for 416 minutes without conceding a goal, has now conceded five goals in 210 minutes to the last-place team in the USL-1 and the fifth-place team in USL-2.
On the attacking end, the RailHawks continue to struggle with putting the ball away. John Cunliffe played an often-marvelous game—which included a ball in to Hamed Diallo for the RailHawks' first goal—but he missed a clear shot from the left in the second half that unnecessarily sailed to the far post, bouncing out for a goal kick.
I spoke afterward to Wilmington's Jamie Watson, who played 120 minutes, assisted on the first goal and finished with four shots on goal. He smiled like the cat that swallowed the RailHawk canary.
Watson said that that Hammerheads had noticed Carolina's difficulties with set pieces, and after identifying this chink in the RailHawks’ defense, they prepared for it. "We knew we might be able to capitalize on it, and [the preparation] worked."
Watson added slyly, "We've been keeping up with them."
(Watson, by the way, is evidence that the USL-2 is home to some highly rated talent, too. After two years at UNC-Chapel Hill, he was taken by Real Salt Lake with the 13th selection in the 2005 MLS Superdraft, 11 selections after Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/ USMNT), three places after the RailHawks' Jack Stewart, 24 places ahead of Luke Kreamalmeyer and 32 places ahead of Amir Lowery. Watson appeared for the Charleston Battery for a single game earlier this season before signing with the Hammerheads.)
Wilmington coach David Irving was nonplussed by the victory, noting that the Hammerheads have in recent years played FC Dallas, Red Bull New York and D.C. United. "We didn't feel like the underdog. Sure, we can play Carolina three or four times and they'll probably beat us. But one game? You never know."
Now that the RailHawks' U.S. Open Cup dreams are gone—in the earliest exit in the club's history—the team needs to find a way to regroup. The bright side is that the schedule will loosen a bit—no game on June 30, for example!—and the team can focus on an entirely achievable goal: the USL-1 Cup. On the downside of the schedule, they've close to exhausted their gimmes, and the remainder of the schedule is weighted toward tougher teams.
Still, it's hard to see how they'll miss the playoffs. But to finish the season in strong form—and with an advantageous playoff seed—they'll need to solve a number of problems, including their defensive organization, and how to consistently mount effective assaults on the opposing goal. In short: defend better and attack better.
The RailHawks have a solid lineup, but it's been getting thinner. The club has lost four defenders since the beginning of the season—including Jack Stewart, who broke his fibula against Miami—and now have only three center backs. Furthermore, Rennie felt his midfield corps was patchy enough that he took a player on loan last weekend. The transfer window is open through June, and it's possible we'll see fresh reinforcements brought in.
More importantly, though, a rough stretch like this is a test of the team's character and morale. We'll start getting answers on that front when the RailHawks travel to Austin this Friday to play the Aztex at 8:30 p.m. The game will be Webcast on USLLive.com.