The ebullience of a first half and partial second half during which the RailHawks (1-2-2) dominated a seemingly outmatched Rowdies (2-1-2) squad ended suddenly and shockingly in confusion, anger, and even despair for hometown players and coaches alike. “From a coaching perspective, it’s really frustrating because the guys gave everything,” said Rennie. “They did a lot of the right things and created chance after chance. So, I’m scratching my head about how we lost that game.”
To wit, the RailHawks outshot Tampa 9-6. Carolina had 10 corner kicks to three for Tampa. And, particularly in the first half, the RailHawks dominated the pace and time of possession. But, by the time the clock hits 90:00, all that matters is the score. “They put two goals in the net and we had chances we didn’t finish,” said RailHawks midfielder Matt Watson. “Finishing is so crucial at this level. You can play pretty soccer all you want, but [it does not matter] if you don’t put the ball in the net. It’s disappointing.”
Hit by injuries and John Gilkerson’s red card suspension, the RailHawks’ starting defensive backs were David Hayes, a former all-league defender with the Portland Timbers who signed with Carolina this week, and the versatile but out-of-position Cory Elenio. Fortunately, the RailHawks’ beleaguered scoring third featured a combination of Gregory Richardson, Josh Gardner, and leading goal-scorer Etienne Barbara.
Propelled by a more offensive mindset and Richardson’s tenacity, the RailHawks created chance after chance during the opening stanza. In the sixth minute, Amir Lowery had a close-range header blocked away. Two minutes later, Etienne lost a scoring opportunity when he fumbled away a Gardner cross. In the 24th minute, Etienne poached an errant Rowdies pass and and almost completed a scoring drive before being displaced of his dribble.
In the 28th minute, one of Richardson’s many piercing forays through the Rowdies’ defense ended with him being tackled and apparently fouled inside the left side of the penalty area. However, no call was forthcoming from referee Jose Carlos Rivero, much to the vociferous consternation of the fans and RailHawks’ coaching staff. Five minutes later, a free kick by the RailHawks ended with a mugging of Matt Bobo inside the box that also generated a whistle only dogs could hear.
After several more scoring opportunities came up nil, a clever link-up between Etienne, Richardson and Watson in the 41st minute ended with a blatant take-down of Watson by the Rowdies’ Yendry Diaz. The referee’s whistle finally became audible, and a penalty kick was allowed. What followed was a prolonged disagreement between Richardson and Etienne over who would take the PK, a standoff reminiscent of the widely seen kerfuffle between Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard during a Chelsea match last week. But, whereas Drogba's appetite was later fed thrice over in an 8-0 rout, Etienne would get no second chance on this night. So, as Richardson celebrated a savvy, stutter step conversion in front of the west stands, Etienne was consoled by Gardner and adopted an irritated visage that never fully vanished the rest of the match.
Absent Richardson’s ability to breakdown the Rowdies’ defense, Carolina fell back into a containment strategy that only worked until the 61st minute, when a 35-yard free kick from Tampa’s World Cup-bound defender Jeremy Christie found the head of Joe Donoho and its way past goalkeeper Nic Platter to even the score at 1-1.
A flurry of substitutions followed for Rennie. Coming on for Watson, Daniel Paladini seemed to reignite a bit of Carolina’s attacking swagger. On the other hand, the play of the newly-shorn Andriy Budnyy—who substituted for Etienne in the 63rd minute—suggested the specter of Sampson post-Delilah. The RailHawks created but failed to convert several scoring chances, most notably a nifty drive by Elenio that ended with a stop by Tampa goalkeeper Josh Lambo.
Just when it began to look like the RailHawks would have to settle for yet another lackluster draw, the Rowdies’ Kwame "JJ" Adjeman-Pamboe took one more Tampa counterattack past the RailHawks’ defense in the 84th minute and crossed it toward the goal. The ball deflected off the chest of Tampa’s Aaron Wheeler—and perhaps a RailHawks defender—and past Platter for the Rowdies go-ahead goal.
Facing improbable defeat, Carolina continued their relentless attack. Unfortunately, it only resulted in countless empty headers, blocked shots, and, just for good measure, a penalty area takedown of Paladini that the referee only wagged his finger at.
After the match, Rennie was almost apoplectic. “In the first half we were all over them; we played some really good stuff. In the second half, I thought we did quite well, too. Look at it: their goal came from a free kick which came from nothing. A ball in the box—should be simple to defend that. The second goal came from a counterattack, and we’ve got to defend that better. Other than that, our play was good, [and] we created chances... Credit to them: They stuck in there because they weren’t really in the game for long spells.
“I think I’ve coached 120 games, and that only the third time I’ve ever lost a game when [my team] scored the first goal," Rennie said. "It’s frustrating to lose a game when you play well and you’re on top. It’s very, very frustrating. We just have to take our medicine and learn from it.”
Indeed, any post-mortem of this match should begin with crime scene tape. “One [foul] in the second half and two in the first, and we only got one penalty,” lamented an exasperated Rennie. “Those are big moments. They had two goals from not much, and we had three potential penalties that weren’t called.”
Many of the same problems along the defensive line that Matt Bobo referenced after the RailHawks’ last home loss to NSC Minnesota still seem to persist. And, Platter has now allowed four goals in his three league starts, as compared to the one goal Eric Reed allowed over his two starts to open the regular season.
But, nothing was more apparent against Tampa than the way Richardson changes and improves the complexion of the RailHawks’ performance. They are a completely different team with him on the field, and if his nagging injuries persist, so too might the RailHawks roller coaster fortunes.
The RailHawks get to stew on this bitter pill before embarking on a treacherous four-game road trip to the most difficult venues in USSF D2: Puerto Rico, Montreal, Portland and Vancouver. “It’s tough because in the meat of the season you play a game and you get back on the horse,” said RailHawks captain Mark Schulte. “We have to think about this one for two weeks, and that’s the rough part.”
Absent an U.S. Open Cup match that could be scheduled in the interim, the RailHawks return to WakeMed Park on June 19 against Crystal Palace Baltimore. That event is being advertised by RailHawks’ marketing as ‘Bark in the Park Night.’ Until then, another animal reference will have to suffice: snake-bitten.