by Neil Morris
WEBCAST—Like the tide that laps against the shore in nearby Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, there was an ebb and flow to the Carolina RailHawks’ road match against the Miami FC Blues, played before a crowd of literally hundreds at Lockhart Stadium (the “Cathedral of South Florida football,” according to Miami’s deliriously optimistic online play-by-play announcer). By the time the dust — most of it from the copious brown patches littering the pitch — had settled, the RailHawks had notched its second consecutive 1-1 draw, a result that would have disappointed supporters prior to kickoff but likely thrilled any who watched the first 80 minutes of the match’s live Internet feed.
Entering tonight’s match, Miami had not beaten Carolina since June 2008. Indeed, when last the two teams shared the same field in August, the RailHawks were giving Miami the literal blues with a 9-0 thrashing at WakeMed Soccer Park. Over their three meetings in 2009, Carolina won each match and outscored Miami 15-0. Advantage: RailHawks.
But, that was then and this is NASL. Miami had drawn all three of their games thus far this season, making them the only undefeated in USSF D2. Of course, it also makes them one of only two teams who were winless in the league (C.P. Baltimore being the other). Miami had only allowed a total of two goals, thanks to the arrival of goalkeeper and former RailHawks standout Caleb Patterson.
Still, it was a little surprising that Miami FC opened tonight’s match as the more aggressive, proficient squad, controlling pace and possession throughout the opening 28 minutes. Meanwhile, the RailHawks, clad in white kits with orange lettering, made a mess of things, flashing the dexterity of a jackhammer and constantly delivering crosses whose only contact were with the ad boards lining the side of the field. While Miami enjoyed five corners during that time span, only a terrific save by RailHawks’ goalkeeper Eric Reed in the 2nd minute kept his opponents out of the scoring column. Advantage: Blues.
Then, just as suddenly, the floodgates opened for Carolina. Three corners preceded free kicks from Josh Gardner and Daniel Paladini that careened off Miami’s wall, all ending with another Gardner free kick that sailed just over the crossbar. Etienne Barbara saw two golden scoring opportunities — one a semi-breakaway, the other a poacher’s put-back — stymied by Patterson in the 24th and 37th minutes. The RailHawks’ vaunted midfield finally took control of a game, and by the time the halftime whistle blew with the match still 0-0, it appeared only a matter of time before Carolina would break the scoring ice. Advantage: RailHawks.
The Blues had other ideas, exiting the locker room with a renewed vigor that manifested itself in the form of Paulo Araujo Jr. “Paulo Jr.” weaved his way down the field in the 48th minute to deliver a cross past the petrified RailHawks’ defense to a wide open Abe Thompson, who dutifully blasted the go-ahead goal into the back of the net.
"Defensively we should have handled that better,” said RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie. “But, from their perspective, the guy showed some great skill to get past our defenders, and not only did he do that but he also picked out the right player in the box who made a composed finish."
A series of back-and-forth chances ensued, the most promising for the RailHawks being a long throw by Mark Schulte that deflected off one player in the box and onto the left boot of Amir Lowery. His point-blank chip was millimeters away from touching nylon before Patterson’s sure reflexes again saved the day as he leapt skyward and snared away a sure goal.
RailHawks’ defender John Gilkerson continuously push forward from his usually left back position throughout the match, sometimes even into the scoring third, and strategy dictated more by Miami personnel and alignment rather than a prearranged tactic, according to Rennie. With a remaining backline of Matt Bobo, Mark Schulte, and Amir Lowery behind him (Greg Shields was inactive due to an injury), Gilkerson seemed to thrive in the role, making mischief and helping to create linking opportunities.
Unfortunately, Gilkerson’s new-found contribution had a decidedly unhappy ending in the 78th minute. A hard foul garnered him one yellow card, and his immediate shove of a Miami player and subsequent vociferous protestations to the head referee earned him a second yellow and red card send-off. With time running out and Carolina now a man down, it appeared to be game, set, and match Miami.
However, determination and a few fresh legs gave the RailHawks a second wind. All were beaten back by Patterson and the rest of the Blues until the 82nd minute, when a long free kick off the right wing from Gardner found its way through the scrum battling to either propel or repel a hopeful header, skimmed off the playing surface beneath a rushing-out Caleb Patterson, and bounded into the net for the equalizer — and the RailHawks first league goal this season not scored by Etienne Barbara.
A revived RailHawks squad made a few final charges, while the Blues (0-0-4) attempted to turn the tide once more when a high heater by Paulinho La Petit during stoppage time that flew just beyond the goal. In the end, Patterson’s lone miscue of the night gave Carolina a fortunate draw.
“I was really pleased with how we fought back,” said Rennie. “We just kept going and going, and even when we were down with 10 men, we still believed we could win the game. Even with 10 men, at the end of the game we were the team still attacking. I felt like we showed a lot of character.”
The slow start by the RailHawks (1-1-2) this season, encapsulated by offensive lethargy and an increasingly disappointing home loss to a now-reeling NSC Minnesota, have given fans and media cause for consternation. Rennie seemed to go out of his way to address those lamentations head-on in response to an otherwise innocuous question about tonight’s match.
“We've had a lot of road games at the start of our season,” he said. “Sometimes you can look at it and say, ‘Oh, the RailHawks aren't doing so well this season.’ The truth of the matter is we’re just getting going, and that's two weeks in a row on the road we've come back from a goal down, and this time it was not only a goal down but [also] a man down. So, you've got to be really, really happy with that early in the season."
The RailHawks (1-1-2) finally return to WakeMed Soccer Park for league play next Friday, May 14 against the upstart FC Tampa Bay Rowdies. Game time is 7:00 p.m.