In England, they're nostalgic for the days when FA Cup fixtures were more than just bothersome scheduling encumbrances for Big Four sides. In this country, it's remarkable that this contest of a sport America supposedly doesn't care about is still in existence after nearly 100 years.
Fewer than 1,000 souls showed up under threat of thunderstorm to watch the Carolina RailHawks' opening round matchup against the 501 (c) 3 missionary Charlotte Eagles of the USL-2. The rain came and went quickly, but it was a muggy, steamy, sticky affair. The RailHawks controlled the play for the better part of the game, but were still fortunate to escape with a 1-0 victory over the Eagles, fourth-placed in the six-team USL-2.
Taking no chances, and benefiting from a loose stretch of the RailHawks schedule, head coach Martin Rennie sent out a strong squad, with only Josh Gardner, David Hayes and Andriy Budnyy absent among those who were featured in the lineups that took eight of 12 points on a recent four-game road trip.
Both sides went with five-man midfields, with Sallieu Bundu starting up top and Gustavo Bentos the lone striker for the Eagles. Bentos, a former Uruguayan youth international, had the distinction of carrying a wrist cast on his right arm, which was covered with padding. It still looked like a lethal weapon, but it apparently passed muster with the authorities (by comparison, Didier Drogba's elbow cast, which was tucked under the Ivory Coast striker's sleeve in its World Cup opener versus Portugal, looked like a mere brace).
The RailHawks mostly showed off expert wing play, particularly down the left to Gregory Richardson. The Guyanese wide man saw fine balls played into space by John Gilkerson, Amir Lowery and Matt Watson, and proceeded to trouble the Eagles with charges into the box of keeper Brian Edwards.
But it was a neat bit of work down the right that saw the game's only goal. Watson carried the ball down the touchline as Bundu insolently lingered in an onside position. Floyd Franks made a run into the box, received the pass from Watson and passed it over to the now-miraculously onside Bundu, who knocked it into the goal.
It was an easy score, and more seemed to be forthcoming. But it was not to be. The clever interchanges continued, but too often the finishes were lacking, most egregiously when Daniel Paladini blew a sitter from about 12 yards in the 14th minute.
The last 12 minutes or so featured a furious barrage from the Eagles, who lay siege to the RailHawks goal with shots and crosses from the periphery, courtesy of, most especially, Joel DeLass and Ben Page. Eric Reed, making his fifth start in a row between the sticks, was up to the challenge, though.
After this win, the RailHawks now must prepare for a Tuesday trip to Charleston's Blackbaud Stadium, where they will face the Battery, who were 4-2 victors over the Scott Schweitzer-led CASL Elite.
Rennie confessed afterward that he was having flashbacks to last year's disastrous second-round Open Cup loss to the now-defunct Wilmington Hammerheads, which was played in similarly stultifying conditions.
About the team's effective wide play, he said, "Some teams defend wide, but [Charlotte] defends more central, so that gave us opportunities. They like to get their fullbacks forward a lot, so that leaves space to attack wide."
Reed, too, alluded to the weather. "I kind of wondered if that was part of their game plan in the heat, the first half was pretty brutal, to sit back and let us play. In the second half, they put a lot more pressure on us and made it difficult for us to play through the middle of the park and even get up the field."
Reed now seems to be Rennie's first-choice goalkeeper, but he shrugged off questions about that and his three clean sheets. "We struggled to get off to a good start this season, and we're running on all cylinders now," he said. "That's the most important thing."
Asked about Bentos' cast, Reed said, "In the beginning, it kinds of hits you in the head a little bit and you wonder what's going on, but you realize he plays with his feet most of the time, he's not supposed to be using his hands anyway. It shouldn't be bothering you too much unless he gets a cheap shot here and there, but I don't think he did tonight."
Next up: Player Ratings!
RailHawks v. Charlotte Eagles: June 15, 2010
GK Eric Reed - 9: Man of the match. Notched six saves and was acrobatic throughout the goal. Almost single-handedly preserved the win in the second half.
D Greg Shields - 8: After being beset by injury twice this season, his presence in lineup indicated how seriously the RailHawks took this U.S. Cup contest. He was an anchor at right back, as usual.
D Matt Bobo - 7: Was an aerial force throughout, including the final frenetic minutes. Gave the ball away too often during the second half.
D Mark Schulte - 7: Very active and surefooted on the back line. Occasionally pressed too far forward, leaving the defense open to counterattacks.
D John Gilkerson - 7: Back into the starting rotation after his two-game league suspension, Gilkerson had one of his better performances, combining solid defense with effective long balls down the left side.
M Amir Lowery - 8: A near-rock at defensive, both with his feet and his head (literally and figuratively). Even nearly scored a goal.
M Floyd Franks - 7: Combined a nose for offensive and defensive for another effective outing, including the assist on the eventual game-winning goal. Still tends to dribble the ball too deep into traffic before looking to distribute.
M Danial Paladini - 6: Was a steady force at midfield, but failed to convert scoring opportunities (including one from pointblank range) and make the right pass during several midfield runs.
M Matt Watson - 7: Until he tired early in the second half, this was one of Watson’s best outings of the season. He constantly pierced the opponents’ right flank throughout the first half, breaking down the defense and setting up several scoring opportunities.
F Gregory Richardson - 6: Like Watson, his speed wreaked havoc for the defense. But, the Eagles’ defense had better luck containing Richardson, who continues to dribble too long before looking to cross.
F Sallieu Bundu - 7: Perhaps his best match of the season, he not only scoring the game-winner but displayed a control and touch that has been missing since last season. Should have converted on his other scoring chances, however.
M Brad Rusin (68th min.) - 6: For the dozenth time, Rusin looks out-of-position when pigeonholed at midfield instead of central defense. Nevertheless, his tall frame and heading ability helped ward off the Eagles’ late-match shot barrage.
M Joseph Kabwe (74th min.) - 5: Spelling Richardson, Kabwe looked out of practice against a defense he should have shredded. His careless ball control and ineffective defense lent the Eagles’ hope until the end.
F Etienne Barbara (90th min.) - 7: Although he only came on in the 90th minute, Barbara managed an impressive drive and shot on goal, and he was poised to embark on another as the final whistle blew.