So, with Carolina and Montreal having posted one win, loss, and draw against each other this year, the teams entered the rubber match of their four-game regular season series at WakeMed Soccer Park fighting not only for bragging rights but also a foothold on second-place in the U.S.S.F. D2 league’s NASL Conference.
In the end, before 2,184 viewers on Military Appreciation Night, the RailHawks defeated Montreal 2-0 in a game marked by intermittent offensive output, defensive sturdiness, and, of course, late-game histrionics. Oh, what some shows won’t do for ratings.
The RailHawks started a familiar cast, with one notable exception. John Gilkerson returned to the lineup at center back in place of iron man Matt Bobo, who sat out his first start and game of the season. It was an eyebrow-raising change by Rennie, but one that would prove sage.
“Matt Bobo is one of our best players this season,” said Rennie. “He’s also a veteran, and at times you have to give them a little bit of a rest. That’s the first reason for the change. The second reason is that John Gilkerson’s one of the best defenders at the club, and he’s outstanding at any position along the back four. We’ve played him at center-back quite a lot in friendlies and scrimmages, and he’s done really well. So, I thought it’d be a good partnership between him and Mark Schulte.”
Both teams failed to convert early scoring opportunities as they felt each other like old boxing rivals. A Schulte shot was blocked in the 15th minute by Impact goalkeeper Matt Jordan. In the 22nd minute, a Josh Gardner interception led to a Floyd Franks knuckler that deflected off Jordan before kissing gently off the base of the left post and back into the field of play.
In the 27th minute, Impact forward Eduardo Sebrango got past Gilkerson before his attempt was deflected wide by RailHawks goalkeeper Eric Reed. Then, in the 31st minute, a sure-shot by Montreal’s Antonio Ribeiro somehow found the left woodwork instead. In the 37th, Carolina’s Allan Russell failed to convert his header off a pinpoint cross into the box by Schulte.
For a while, it appeared the first half would be highlighted only by a series of hard take-downs being exchanged between Schulte and Ribeiro. Finally, with halftime upon them, Matt Watson gathered an interception and played the ball left to Gardner. Gardner played the ball back to a streaking Watson, who obliged with a return to an onside Gardner, who blasted the ball into the back netting for a 1-0 RailHawks halftime lead.
“We fought for the ball along the midway line,” recalls Gardner. “The ball popped to me, I touched it over to Matt, Matt played it over to me, I actually see Jordan cheating to his left, so I go near post.”
With Reed exhorting the supporters after coming out of the locker room, Montreal’s early second half play was marred by sloppy possession and lots of clutching and grabbing. Montreal’s best opportunities to score were 73rd and 79th minute headers that were both saved by Reed.
With the humidity high and legs waning, Rennie made his first of five substitutions in the 66th minute when Paladini came on for Watson. But, like any good producer, he saved the biggest plot twist for the climax. Enter Etienne Barbara, starring as “Etienne Barbara: Maltese Striker.”
An active Barbara, coming on in the 80th minute and returning to the striker position after an injury and a few forgettable guest-appearances at right winger, made an immediate “impact.” In the 83rd minute, he stayed onside and in control of a long pass, dribbling in about 25 yards and drawing the keeper towards him before and laying the ball off to a streaking Cory Elenio, who put away the gimme for a 2-0 RailHawks’ lead.
With Rennie urging his team forward - perhaps recalling the unhappy result the last time his team showed complacency while holding a lead over Montreal - Barbara took another breakaway into the box during full-time stoppage before he was taken down by a Jordan-Adam Braz sandwich. As Barbara lay writhing on the ground, Jordan, sensing a dive, grabbed Barbara and slung him to his feet. Pushing and shoving ensued, and referee Mark de Clouet presented yellow cards to both Jordan and Braz, but, curiously, did not award a penalty.
As Carolina played in the ensuing short corner and the final whistle sounded, a still-seething Barbara made a beeline for Braz. Television replay shows that they began jawing at each other, and, as their arms became tangled, Barbara threw a glancing blow to the left side of Braz’s head. Like any good actor, Braz paused for dramatic effect before dropping to the ground as if Barbara had used a sledgehammer. Braz lay on the ground for minutes, and de Clouet issued a red card to Barbara, thereby suspending him for next Wednesday’s match against Rochester. Meanwhile, Montreal coach Marc Dos Santos - playing the role of Martin Rennie circa June 26 - ran out onto the field to deliver some mysterious grievance to the suddenly besieged referee. Together with Barbara’s post-game red, de Clouet presented Montreal with five yellow cards, four of them in the last five minutes of the match.
“It’s definitely developing into a pretty nice rivalry,” said Carolina’s Amir Lowery. “Seems like things always get a little chippy against them.”
Reed was typically sensational in earning his fifth clean sheet of the season. Gardner's goal and Barbara's assist tie each for the team lead in both categories (5 goals, 2 assists). And, Gilkerson proved a worthy replacement for Bobo. “Matt Bobo is a great player, but John brings a little different dimension as far as his speed, aggression, and pace in the back that helped us push forward a little more,” said Gardner.
The win improves Carolina’s record to 7-4-7 and widens their second place NASL conference lead to 28 points, four more than Montreal. More importantly, it is the RailHawks’ first league victory at WakeMed Park since the season opener back in early April.
“One of keys in soccer and life is not to focus on what’s happened in the past, just to focus on what you have to do today,” ruminated Rennie. “Ultimately, we’ve done well this season. We’re in a good position and we’re starting to play better at the right time. It was a good win for us tonight, and I think getting a win gives you confidence.”
The RailHawk are back in action at WakeMed Park this Wednesday, August 11 at 7 p.m. as they host another rubber match, this time the fourth game of the season against the Rochester Rhinos.
As for Carolina and Montreal, this match was a fitting end to a season-long soap opera, at least until they green-light As the RailHawks Impact: The Playoffs.