WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—When the final whistle blew after five minutes of stoppage time, and the RailHawks were once again without a victory, losing 2-1 to the Puerto Rico Islanders, the normally unflappable Martin Rennie gave vent—ever so briefly—to his feelings. A water bottle on the grass felt the brunt of Rennie's one-time professional kick, before the young coach composed himself and shook hands with Puerto Rico's formidable coach, Colin Clarke.
June has been brutal for the RailHawks: With only one game remaining this month—a friendly against Panama on Tuesday (a substitute for what woulda/coulda/shoulda been a 3rd round US Open Cup match against the Chicago Fire—the record for the month is this: 0-2-2 in league play and 1-3-2 overall. The only victory came in the month's first game against the USL-2 Richmond Kickers in the opening round of Open Cup play.
What's more, the team that entered June having reeled off four consecutive victories, with an aggregate score of 7-0, and had conceded only five goals all season, gave up nine goals in all competitions in June (four were conceded to USL-2 opposition).
The RailHawks are still in third place, four points behind the Islanders, who took the league lead with the victory. However, the RailHawks have played two fewer games than Puerto Rico, one fewer than second-place Charleston and two more than fourth-place Portland. In terms of points-per-game, the top of the table looks like this:
The RailHawks lineup we saw tonight was clearly an effort to to put more height on the field: Mark Schulte, who all season long has been a mainstay at center back, tonight moved to right back. This cleared room for Brad Rusin to start alongside Jeremy Tolleson. At left back was Kupono Low; the usual starter at right back, Devon McKenney, didn't dress due to a hamstring injury suffered against Austin.
Rennie said the shakeup was partly a direct response offered by the size and strength of the Islanders—who were brilliant representatives of the USL in last winter's CONCACAF Champions League, making it to the semifinals. In particular, Rennie said, the RailHawks were looking for an answer to their difficulties defending set pieces.
"I knew [the Islanders] were good on set plays, and I wanted to have Mark and Brad in there to help us aerially," Rennie said. "Brad has been doing well at center back and Devon was injured."
One clear sacrifice, however, was speed on the flanks. The left backs have typically been more conservative than McKenney on the right. Against Puerto Rico, the threats from the rear were mostly nonexistent, especially in the first half, as balls were played up the middle.
After Amir Lowery put the RailHawks up in the 40th minute by exploiting the Islanders' failure to clear a Schulte throw-in, the visitors lashed back two minutes later. Someone—Nigel Henry, I believe—dribbled unmarked into the left of the box and crossed to onetime RailHawks and 2008 USL-1 player of the year Jonathan Steele. 1-1.
The deadlock broke in the 63rd. Despite the reorganization of the back, the ’Hawks were again vulnerable to spot kicks. After a Tolleson foul, Steele lined up for a free kick on the right side, about 20-25 yards out. All game long, the Islanders had been sending balls in the air to their sensational, lethal and evidently unmarkable right back Christian Arrieta, who improbably leads the USL in points (15) and goals (6). As Steele took his kick, I watched the RailHawks' Amir Lowery mark Arrieta tightly as he went to the near post, but then referee Jose Carlos Rivero instructed Steele to kick the ball again. This time, Arrieta went wide left, where he was unmarked. He received the ball, slipped past Lowery * Rusin and fired a shot. A rebound, and Peter Villegas was there. 2-1.
For Schulte, the defensive breakdowns are a matter of focus and motivation: "We've got to sit down and talk about it. ... Other teams want it more than us."
For Rennie, "Tonight we played OK at times, but we weren't at our best, and when you're not at your best in this league you're going to lose, or not going to win. Rather than talking about it, we need to execute what we've already been talking about. On set plays we need to make sure we're attacking the ball, that we're beating the guy we're marking to the ball."
If there was any good news tonight it was this: After the game, Rennie lamented the loss of Jack Stewart (ankle injury), Mustafa Sama (failure to get clearance) and, most recently, Paul Ritchie (knee). I asked him if fresh signings were coming. Without hesitation, Rennie said "Yes, we're working on it," although he didn't specify names. I asked Rennie about several soccer-looking guys watching the game tonight from the stands with non-lineup players. Rennie said, "Those aren't any guys we can sign."
The international transfer window opens July 15, and the RailHawks can sign any players under USSF jursidiction until the USL roster freeze in August. Hopefully, fresh legs will be signed soon, and that there are a couple of quality defenders in the mix. As good as Schulte is, and he has been strong all season, he looked brutally whipped by the end of the game after 90 minutes of hauling himself up and down the right flank. He only got his first game off last weekend against Austin and Tolleson hasn't missed a minute since Stewart's injury. The strain on the defense is showing—on their faces and on the scoreboard.
* Corrected 6/29 after seeing the video replay.