But, in the end, the RailHawks (3-2-3; 12 points) would sprout from saplings into sequoias, answering the league-leading seventh goal of the season from the Timbers’ Ryan Pore with an offensive intensity absent during the preceding 61 minutes. And, just like last week’s nail-biting victory at Puerto Rico, Daniel Paladini would enter the game late and score a decisive goal during stoppage time, this time to eke out a 1-1 draw.
RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie again presented a defensively oriented starting 11, with the only prospective scoring threats being Josh Gardner, Gregory Richardson and Sallieu Bundu. And, with Greg Shields sitting out in preparation for Wednesday night’s match at Vancouver, midfielder Cory Elenio was shoehorned at right back.
Unfortunately, Richardson had one of his least productive matches in recent memory, as uncertain bounces and a solid, speedy Portland defense kept him at bay all evening. With Richardson playing at left wing, the left-footed Gardner was less effective playing on the right. And, Bundu, like many of his teammates, struggling with touch and control all night.
“You can ask any players in our league: [artificial] turf is the worst to play on,” said Paladini. “It’s very difficult to control the ball, especially when it’s wet. And, it sticks—David Hayes broke his cleats on it in the first half and I had to give him my spares from the bench.”
Although Portland (3-3-3) outshot Carolina 8-1 in the first half, both teams were scoreless at intermission. The best scoring opportunities during the opening stanza were on goals left nearly empty by rushing-out keepers. After Eric Reed made two great saves on shots by Bright Dike, a Matt Bobo giveaway allowed Dike to drive past a charging Reed. However, his empty netter was deflected away at the last second by a recovering Mark Schulte. Then later, in the 45th minute, Richardson executed an acrobatic bicycle kick past an absent Steve Cronin that was headed to safety by a Timbers’ defender.
A halftime downpour seemed to open the Timbers’ offensive floodgates, capped by Pore’s pinpoint goal past an outstretched Reed in the 61st minute. A game of role reversal ensued, as Portland was now the team attempting to take the air out of the ball and Carolina mustered a heretofore dormant sense of urgency.
Bundu failed to capitalize on two on-target over-the-top passes from Floyd Franks and former Timbers standout David Hayes. Then, the game’s most fateful moment came in the 66th minute when Paladini and Etienne Barbara entered the match, replacing Franks and Bundu. In the 77th, Barbara served up a 25-yard blast that sailed over the goal. In the 86th minute, Paladini and Barbara nearly connected on a give-and-go inside the box. Portland, who outshot Carolina 16-7 in the match, missed the chance to seal the victory in the 88th minute when another Pore strike ricocheted off the left post.
Then, with the Timbers' lumberjack mascot revving up his chainsaw and defender Stephen Keel prematurely fist-pumping the boisterous Timbers Army supporters, a funny thing happened along the RailHawks' way to the saw mill. In the waning seconds of only two minutes of stoppage time, Barbara crossed the ball from the right down the goal-line past a diving Cronin. The pass found the foot of the charging Paladini, who popped the ball into the upper part of the net from pointblank range. As Carolina celebrated their hard-earned draw, dejected Timbers crumbled to the turf like so much forest green grist.
“I think the whole team deserves credit," Paladini said. "Etienne and I came in to try to change the game, and obviously it paid off. Etienne made a great run down the line to beat two players, and when I looked over at him I saw him turn [his defender] inside out and I just made a hard run to the near post, and thankfully the ball got to me.”
Asked about his repeat late-game heroics, Paladini chuckled. “Josh Gardner just told me, ‘You better stop doing that or you’re going to start becoming the super sub.’”
The draw extends Portland's league winless streak to five games. It is also marks the third time this season they have surrendered pivotal goals during second half stoppage time—the first was another tying score given up to lowly AC St. Louis on May 15, followed a week later by a game-winning goal allowed at Baltimore.
“In the first half we didn’t play as well as we have been,” said Rennie. “In the second half, we played really well and moved the ball well. We were disappointed to lose the goal, but we showed lots of character to keep fighting. I think when you’re on the road, one of the keys is to have determination and stick together.”
Three games into their dreaded four-game road trip, the RailHawks have already tallied an improbable seven points with a match at the Vancouver Whitecaps remaining this Wednesday. Ironically, it appears the time away from home is just what the team needed.
“I think in the beginning of the season, we were just trying to get used to each other, and Martin was trying to find a good mix of players,” said Paladini. “Now, we’ve really come together. There’s just something about road trips that brings a team together, whether it’s playing cards or making fun of each other. So, I think this was healthy for our team and we’re heading in the right direction.”
The RailHawks’ road success—and how it compares favorable to their earlier woes at home—is not lost on Rennie, either. “We’re going into Vancouver with a lot of confidence. We’re looking to get 10 points of the 12 available from these four road games. If anyone had said we would have a chance to do that right after the Tampa game...well, we would have been very pleased.”
After facing Vancouver this Wednesday, the RailHawks return to WakeMed Soccer Park next Tuesday, June 15 at 7 p.m. to play their first-round match in the U.S. Open Cup against the Charlotte Eagles.