Indeed, in order to gauge the schizophrenic nature of the match, you need only contrast two post-game comments from different team leaders:
“That’s probably one of the best first halves that’s been seen here, certainly since I’ve been here,” said manager Martin Rennie.
“It just so disappointing, we’ve had such poor performances at home,” sputtered team captain Mark Schulte. “Gosh, we had so many opportunities and just didn’t capitalize on them. It’s just ridiculous. We had so many breakaways and didn’t put any of them away. And, those two goals shouldn’t have gone in. There’s no excuse of it. Just another frustrating day for me.”
No sooner had Danielle Fernandez Norkus finished crooning the final bars of the National Anthem than the Whitecaps tallied their opening goal. A first-minute Vancouver corner appeared to end with Gregory Richardson clearing the ball off his right hand. The referee rightly called handball and pointed to the spot, and Whitecaps’ captain Martin Nash put away a top-shelf penalty kick to give Vancouver a 1-0 lead.
“Anything you can do I can do...kind of,” responded the RailHawks. A mere two minutes later, a Richardson free kick off the right side deflected off Nash’s hand. Continuing his impression of an English Pointer, the referee awarded the RailHawks their very own PK. Unfortunately, Floyd Franks’ attempt was about six inches higher than Nash’s, leaving the crossbar vibrating so violently it registered on the Richter scale.
Still, the RailHawks continued to push forward with success, a strategy Rennie said Carolina intended to pursue from the outset. In the sixth minute, Josh Gardner failed to catch-up to another Richardson cross into the box. An eighth-minute thorough ball from Richardson bounded just beyond Matt Watson, who had his own shot blocked by Whitecap’ goalkeeper Jay Nolly in the 11th minute.
Then, a Vancouver counterattack in the 15th ended with a Philippe Davies laser strike that found the inside netting, his first-ever goal for the Whitecaps.
A clearly rattled Railhawks squad took nearly five minutes to regain their bearings before continuing their heretofore fruitless assault. Alan Russell, getting his second start in as many games since joining the RailHawks, sent a header wide in the 20th minute. Soon after, Nolly swatted away two strikes from Richardson. In the 29th, Watson stayed onside but couldn’t gain full control of a bouncing loose ball, leading to another Nolly deflection.
Finally, the RailHawks’ superb linking paid dividends in the 40th minute. Nolly mishandled a screamer from Gardner. Russell gained control of the rebound and casually handed it off to Schulte’s inner thigh, which obliged with a poacher’s effort to cut the score to 2-1.
Russell hooked a breakaway effort wide left of the goal in the 41st minute. Then, with the halftime whistle upon them, Franks slotted a nifty pass through to a streaking Richardson, who, weary of Nolly’s omnipresence, borrowed Russell’s example from five minutes earlier by crossing the ball over to a wide-open Gardner for an easy, empty-net equalizer.
Unfortunately, the teams that emerged from the locker room after intermission were shadows of their first-half selves. The stat sheet says both teams attempted seven goals during the second half, but for the life of me I can barely remember any of them, certainly few on-target. The best scoring opportunity for either club was in the 83rd minute, when Nash took a trip down memory lane by revisiting the same crossbar Franks found during his 4th minute penalty kick.
The reasons for the RailHawks’ relative lethargy vary. Some claim Carolina was mentally gassed after having to crawl so steep a mountain just to even the scoreline. Rennie seemed to assign some blame to the WakeMed wine-and-cheese crowd. “Honestly, it’s really quiet here,” he said. “We walked out [from halftime] and it was like no one was even here. It was deadly silent, and that does effect the tempo of the game a little bit.”
Of course, perhaps the RailHawks’ faithful had a premonition that Carolina would call off their attack, as both teams spent the closing stanza more worried about making a game-changing mistake than going out and seizing victory.
In truth, Vancouver made two key defensive adjustments in the second half: dropping their back line deeper and substituting the speedier Takashi Hirano for 17-year-old midfielder Russell Teibert, a hot prospect and two-time Canadian under-17 player of the year, who was routinely filleted by the speedy Richardson the entire first half.
“If we attack like we did in the first half every home game, we’re going to do really well, because that was a really good performance in terms of attacking play, really good tempo and it was enjoyable to watch,” said Rennie. “To be down 2-0 against the Whitecaps, who have the best defensive record in the league, and to come back 2-2 by halftime is overall good. It keeps us in touching distance with them with the games we have in hand, but we have to make those games count.”
Russell continues to impress in his short stint in Cary, lending savvy and stability to the head of the RailHawks' formation. With Etienne Barbara and Sallieu Bundu recovering from injuries, Russell's arrival could not have come at a better time for Rennie's squad.
Tonight’s match was the first of a four-game home stand. The RailHawks still have not won a home game since the season opener versus AC St. Louis. What was once a quirky curiosity is now a baffling conundrum: Carolina’s road record this season now stands at 5 wins, 1 loss, and 3 draws; their record at WakeMed Park is 1 win, three loses, and four draws.
“Mentally, you don’t want to think [we’re having trouble at home],” says Gardner. “We did things a little bit different this morning, coming in early and talking a little bit. That’s usually what we do on the road. From here, we have to do what we did in the first half: get forward as much as we can.”
The RailHawks next match promises to ignite more fireworks. Next Saturday, Carolina hosts the Montreal Impact for the third time this year, the last being the June 26 draw whose controversial ending and aftermath led sanctions being levied against Rennie and the club.