The first was a blown fuse that caused the park’s scoreboard to remain dark the entire match, which was played before a crowd of 2,013. (Thank goodness for our iPhone’s stopwatch function.)
The second—and far more significant—one became apparent once AC St. Louis began its first match in team history with only 10 players on the pitch.
As it was explained afterward, St. Louis midfielder Manuel Kante left his player ID card at the team’s hotel. When Kante could not produce the card for the referee, he was not allowed to start the match. As Kante (or a team gofer) scurried back to the hotel to retrieve the card, St. Louis manager Claude Anelka was left with a choice: Substitute immediately for the experienced Kante, which would have kept St. Louis at full strength but disallowed Kante—who had already been listed as part of the official starting lineup—from entering the match once he produced his ID card, or gamble and play a man down until Kante returned.
It appeared from our vantage point in the grandstand that Anelka tried to replace Kante with Dillon Barna, but was informed by referee Andrew Chapin that such a move would constitute a substitution. Barna sat back down and the game began in bizarre fashion, with AC St. Louis shorthanded from the get-go.
Anelka’s choice instantly proved a fateful one. RailHawks’ forward Etienne Barbara, barely one week since his arrival in America, pierced the St. Louis defense and blasted home what would prove the winning goal in just the 4th minute of play. Already enjoying an advantage over an inexperienced and injury-riddled opponent, the RailHawks proceeded to pick apart St. Louis and control possession over the next 26 minutes. In the 25th minute, left back John Gilkerson surged forward and Etienne received a clever cross from newly minted RailHawk Corey Elenio that the Maltese striker rifled past goalkeeper (and Raleigh native) Alec Dufty to make the score 2-0.
AC St. Louis’ only real first half scoring threat was in the 28th minute when John Lesko barely failed to convert his header off a spot-on free kick from Jack Traynor. Any other threats were repeatedly snuffed out by RailHawks’ goalkeeper Eric Reed, who blended sure hands with a nose for rushing out on his way to an opening night clean sheet. It was around the 30th minute or so when a finally validated Kante darted out of the player’s tunnel and onto the pitch. By then, however, the damage was done.
St. Louis actually outshot Carolina 5-2 in the second half, but only three of their eight total shots for the game were on target. St. Louis also benefited from the foul-happy Chapin, who whistled the RailHawks for 14 total infractions to just 4 for AC St. Louis. Most notably, the referee showed Josh Gardner a questionable yellow card in the 75th minute as Gardner drove into the penalty area eying an addition to Carolina’s scoring total.
“I poked it through and was a little off-balance,” recounts Gardner. “I tried to jump over the tackle and he just stood his ground. To be honest, the ref had it out for me and I had it out for him [since the preseason friendly] against Montreal. So, fair game. We made up after the game and we’re good now.”
As the second half slowly wound down, the only fireworks—other than Gardner’s circuitous reconciliation—occurred in the 88th minute when Traynor airmailed a shot over the goal and off the slumbering scoreboard’s support base, apparently his Fonzie-like attempt to awaken the mechanical monolith.
“I’m pleased,” said RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie. “It’s the home opener against a team we really didn’t know too much about, so it’s hard to prepare and plan for them. And, we won 2-0, they really only had one good shot in the game, and we end up with a clean sheet, which is a good way to start. So, I’m happy.
“I think we could have pressed them a little more in the second half. But, it’s hard when you know you’re up 2-nil and if you don’t lose a goal you’ve won the game. Maybe we should have pushed a bit more. But, we got the win and that’s the important thing.”
Addressing the opening mix-up, Anelka explained, “If we had brought in another player, Kante could not have played anymore. So, that’s why we played with 10 players in the beginning. And, they scored two goals. That’s the way it is.”
For their part, the RailHawks were either perplexed by or, in some cases, oblivious to the subbing snafu. “The player didn’t have his ID card so the referee wouldn’t let him play, but I don’t understand why they just didn’t play someone else,” said Rennie. For their part, Etienne and Elenio were unaware they played a man advantage until after the fact. “I just thought they were going to bring on someone else and sub him on,” said Elenio. “But, that’s news to me, and we’ll take it however we can get it.”
The opening match also featured further test-driving of the RailHawks’ new rotating formation. The good news is that it produced two quick, decisive goals. The sobering observation is that the match played to a draw once St. Louis was at normal strength.
Or maybe it was a variation of the old formation. From Etienne’s perspective: “We played a 4-3-3 with two wingmen coming out, and I had to play the target man and make deep runs behind the defense.”
Gardner explicates further on behalf of the midfielders: “We’re just trying to confuse them a little bit and make things a little interesting. Obviously, it’s a different view with the left-footer on the right side and the right-footer on the left side. With Daniel [Paladini], Joseph [Kabwe], and myself always cycling through, the other team has to decide who to stay with.”
The RailHawks’ next match is Friday, April 16, when they host another budding D2 club, the NSC Minnesota Stars.
Until then, allow me to summarize:
—One scoreboard fuse = $6.00
—Choosing to play a man down for 30 minutes instead of full strength = Losing your franchise opener
—The glare Etienne Barbara gave play-by-play announcer Dean Linke when, while presenting the Man of the Match award, Linke asked Barbara over the stadium’s P.A. system whether his surname is pronounced “like the woman’s name” = Priceless