Joe Schwartz, the newest staff reporter at the Independent Weekly, attended Saturday night's game and filed this report:
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY-I hate to admit it, but I'm one avid Triangle-based soccer loon who hadn't made my way out to a Carolina RailHawks game until Saturday night. It seems I've spent more time monitoring the comings and goings of the Barclays English Premiership in the offseason than taking in United Soccer League action in my backyard.
So, when a colleague and I set sail for WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, I had a boatload of questions. Key among them was, "What's the biggest difference between the quality of play at this level compared to the MLS or European football (yes, football)?"
"The finishing," he responded. For about 80 minutes he couldn't have been more spot on as the first-place RailHawks (15-3-5) and the last place Cleveland City Stars (2-13-7) created chances but scuffed and flubbed shots wide left and right, and even chipped one ball into the parking lot.
Enter former Chivas USA and Los Angeles Galaxy-man Daniel Paladini in the contest's 62nd minute and all that changes. Moving the ball with pace and intent not seen until he took the field along with brother-in-law and new father Josh Gardner, Paladini gave life to the match and created the turning point when he was greeted with a strong tackle by midfielder Alioiune Gueye.
"When he hit me, it was just a clip, but I had so much momentum that I made it look bad," said Paladini, whose theatrics earned Gueye a red card in the 76th minute. "I heard the ref blow the whistle so fast that I knew I made it look worse than it was. But that's part of the game. You've got to do that sometimes."
The RailHawks forged on with newfound space and freedom and were able to create the crucial chance just six minutes later.
Recently-acquired juggernaut Gregory Richardson started the move with an incisive pass to striker Andriy Budnyy whose shot was parried away by Cleveland keeper Evan Bush. Richardson collected the rebound and slotted it home in the side netting from distance.
It was the breakthrough that the Railhawks had craved all evening against Cleveland, which came to take home a tie and one point.
"At halftime I wasn't really happy," Carolina Coach Martin Rennie said. "The first half was one of the most disappointing games I've coached since I've been here, but they guys responded, I felt, in the second half. What you have to realize is when the tempo of the game is slow like that it's hard to change it."
The 10-men City Stars were forced to trudge forward after conceding the opening strike, which left space for the RailHawks to counterattack and seal all three points.
That's precisely what happened in stoppage time. Richardson's low stinger was spilled by Bush, and Paladini was quick to collect the ball and tuck it away before running toward the fans in celebration.
"I saw this little girl in the stands, and she was calling my name out before i was going in and telling me to score a goal," he said. "I think it was her, so I just wanted to jump over and just give the fans something to be excited about."
The 1,850 in attendance got just that. They saw their hometown club return to the top of the USL-1 standings, tied with Portland on 42 points, and win for the ninth time in the last 10 outings. The Railhawks also kept a clean sheet for the fourth straight game, meaning no one has breeched the Carolina goal line in 400 minutes of action.
They now face a tough stretch with a home and home against the Vancouver Whitecaps and a trip to the Rochester Rhinos all in the next two weeks.
Carolina will come into the contests riding a high having scored late winners in two straight matches.
"it's been a fair amount of games now where we've had late goals," defender Mark Schulte said. "We're starting to get that belief that no matter what happens we're going to come through, and that's big especially come playoff time."
Stat box here.