WAKEMED SOCCER PARK—It was the most exciting league game of the year. Fast, furious and creative, the RailHawks brought their A-game against the rugged, battle-hardened and extremely adept Puerto Rico Islanders. It was also a road-weary Islanders lineup that put most of its regulars out on the field despite a looming, critical CONCACAF Champions League match against Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul. The 2-1 result put the RailHawks back in second place ahead of the Islanders, which they can clinch with a win against Montreal Friday (although Charleston can tie them with two final victories).
The first 12 minutes were enough to win the game, as the RailHawks' left winger Gregory Richardson waltzed at will past the Islanders' star right back Christian Arrieta in the first half. In the second minute, Richardson broke into the box and took a ball from Joseph Kabwe, and put it past PR keeper Justin Myers at the far post. It was Richardson's fifth goal of the season.
It was the fastest goal of the season for the RailHawks—and many fans were still arriving through the main gate. There was plenty of first-rate football left for them, however. In the 11th, Richardson left Arrieta flailing in a spectacular jinking operation, but the Islanders' Sean Fraser came in to help. The ball came back upfield and Richardson uncorked from distance. It was on-frame, but the ball deflected off Andriy Budnyy on its high-speed way and the Ukrainian got his fourth goal of the season.
In the first half, the RailHawks put on their most fluid, creative and dazzling display of the season—an even more impressive performance than the 9-0 result against the hapless Miami, because Colin Clarke's Islanders are no Miami.
And while the Islanders were better at keeping the ball away from Richardson in the second half, and snatched back a goal on a magnificent run by Nicholas Addlery in the 66th minute, the RailHawks, anchored by captain Mark Schulte and his comrade in central defense, Jeremy Tolleson, kept their poise to secure the win.
There was, however, a scare in the final minute of six added minutes, as Addlery blew a wide-open header on a ball from Arrieta. The result was particularly tough for the Islanders' goalkeeper Justin Myers; the redoubtable all-star Bill Gaudette was left behind in Puerto Rico for this road trip, leaving Myers and fellow backup Michael Behonick to concede seven goals in two matches.
Richardson and Kabwe were a devastating combination—in addition to their individual pace and ball skills, together they worked the left sideline like telepathic twins. Repeatedly, they victimized Arrieta on the left, forcing him to pick his poison: let them go outside and try to win the footrace, or let them go inside and hope to get help.
"When Richardson is on form he can cause anyone trouble, and he was tremendous tonight," RailHawks coach Martin Rennie said. "Arrieta is obviously one of the best defenders in the league, and he had a really hard time tonight."
Of Kabwe's performance—his second sterling turn at WakeMed in a row after his hat trick against Miami last month—Rennie said, "When he's on a run like that, he's a really special player. It took him a while to get settled here, get confidence. he's one of the best players in the league in the league."
"We knew we were coming in as underdogs so we had to give it everything we had," Kabwe said.
Arrieta had the misfortune to play that first half right in front of his own bench, and by the end of the half was enduring not-so-friendly words of encouragement from his coaches. Kabwe and Richardson took seven shots between them, and they combined on opportunities with Daniel Paladini and Andriy Budnyy, who took four shots. Paladini, for his part, had an off-night, with uncharacteristically misplaced shots and free kicks.
Arrieta still managed to get forward and show why he's the most dangerous defender in the league and a lock for all-USL-1 honors: On free kick after free kick, the Islanders' Jonathan Steele managed to get the ball to the head of Arrieta, who would finish with two shots.
The final 24 minutes plus a generous six minutes of stoppage time gave the fans a tense, thrilling affair. Two RailHawks went off the in the second half with faces bleeding, which which roused the normally sedate Cary faithful to a few hearty—and heartening—catcalls: "You suck," "you cheater," etc. Richardson—perhaps not surprisingly, since the Islanders had few answers otherwise—was the first victim, taking an elbow to his brow that would necessitate two stitches and an early exit in the 71st. Then Matthew Delicate, the RailHawks' newest signing who replaced Budnyy in the 73rd, took a knock under his eyebrow going up for a header. The trainers weren't able to stop the bleeding quickly, and he came off in the 84th.
Delicate's debut with the RailHawks was a propitious one. Immediately demonstrating the form that helped him lead the USL-2 Richmond Kickers to the USL-2 champsionship with 13 goals in 20 games, Delicate took a ball from the ubiquitous Kabwe, played it past the Islanders' Alexis Rivera and fired at the goal from the top of the 18. "I put my touch across the defender," Delicate said. "I thought the keeper might go down and I tried to put it past him, obviously. He went down and I think it came off his shoulder. It was a good save and it would have been a great way [for me] to start."
It was a great night of football on the pitch, and it was a heartening one off the pitch, as well. Although the announced attendance of 3,350 was just decent, the stadium felt well-filled for the first time in a long while—and was more impressive considering that N.C. State was playing football a few miles away at the same time.
It was strong result against a rival the RailHawks had never beaten. Furthermore, the Islanders, unlike the American USL-1 clubs, have an active life away from the league. They're currently embroiled in CONCACAF Champions League group play, and are in the midst of an unimaginably congested schedule. Last night's game was their fourth game in seven days. On Tuesday, they host Cruz Azul for a game that will determine their chances of making it out of CONCACAF group play.
Afterward, I spoke briefly with Islanders coach Clarke about his team's insane schedule. "We started the week well at home with two big wins, then on the road lost a couple of games and picked up some injuries so it's been tough. But you know, you've got to keep going. We had this a little of this last year but not as bad as this."
While the RailHawks were playing for second place, advantage in the playoffs and to prove they could beat Puerto Rico, Clarke's view of the stakes was milder. "Both Puerto Rico and RailHawks qualified for the playoffs early, so it's not like we're fighting to get in there. So that's been a blessing."
But he was unhappy with the result, nonetheless. "We're disappointed—we gave up two bad goals. The first one was a bad mistake mentally, the second one takes a deflection, so we got behind. In the second half I thought we got back into it and caused them some problems and could have got a tie out of the game. But on the night, they deserved to win."
On the epic first-half clash between Richardson and Arrieta, Clarke said, "[Richardson's] a very good player with a lot of pace. I thought Richardson gave him some problems, but Christian done a good job, he hung in there, got his own back a little bit and flattened him down. Good players are hard to handle."
I asked Clarke what he thought of the possibility of playing the RailHawks four times in a month—which could happen in the second round of the playoffs. His eyes flickered with a hint of amusement. "We might, we might not. Hopefully we do." A pause. "We'll get to the second round."
And finally, I spoke briefly with the Islanders' Pablo Martin Nuñez, who was a bright spot on last year's RailHawks team, earning offensive player of the year honors, which he shared with Santiago Fusilier. Nuñez jumped to Puerto Rico this season, but has found playing time hard to come by. He entered the game last night, though, in the 82nd minute.
"This is my first trip back [to Cary]," Nuñez said. "I didn't make the trip [last time] but got the chance today and it was an honor to be here. The [RailHawks] gave me the opportunity to show my stuff last year. Puerto Rico's been great, it's a good life, it's nice to live there. But you know, I'm trying to work hard and play and get more minutes."
Nuñez didn't have many opportunities on the ball last night, but he did provide a return engagement of his penchant for on-field dustups. He was in the thick of a scuffle late in the game as he objected vehemently to some go-slow tactics by the RailHawks. "I was trying to hurry up and trying to win, because I hate losing. I was trying to hurry up and get our throw-in. He wouldn't give me the ball so we got into some pushing and shoving, but nothing much."
Will he be back in Puerto Rico next year? "We'll see. I have my option. We'll see how it works out."
The RailHawks close out their regular season on Friday, Sept. 18, against the Montreal Impact. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Stat box here.