by Neil Morris
Two of those road victories came against the Puerto Rico Islanders, the only times the RailHawks have ever won at Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium. Coming off a win at Tampa Bay last week, it was a confident RailHawks squad that greeted the Islanders for their first of two visits to Cary, N.C. this season.
Perhaps too confident. The RailHawks’ 3-2 loss to Puerto Rico is not the first time Carolina has appeared the better squad in defeat. But, it is only the second time this season the RailHawks (9-8-7, 34 pts.) have scored two goals in a match and lost, the other being six days ago at Austin. As for the Islanders (8-7-8, 32 pts.), the win extends their current unbeaten streak to nine games—the last league match they lost was to the RailHawks on July 11.
Coach Martin Rennie fielded a lineup that included forward Andriy Budnyy, making his first start of the season, and Nic Platter, with his sixth start in goal. Meanwhile, left out as substitutes were Etienne Barbara, the team’s leading scorer, Gregory Richardson, whose late-game heroics led Carolina to a come-from-behind victory against Miami last week, hard-nosed and versatile midfielder Floyd Franks, and Amir Lowery, the team’s most effective defensive stopper this year. Oh, and goalkeeper Eric Reed, who has registered six clean sheets in 18 starts.
The RailHawks also sported a 4-4-2 diamond formation they practiced quite a bit during training camp and recently revived in the Tampa win. A principal proponent of the scheme during the preseason was Daniel Paladini, and it was Paladini who took advantage of his more free-flowing midfield role to log his best game this year.
Carolina came out firing from the opening whistle. In the 3rd minute, Allan Russell drew out Islanders’ goalkeeper Bill Gaudette before crossing the ball to Greg Shields, who somehow failed to convert a short range gimme. With the RailHawks still slicing into Islanders’ territory, Puerto Rico’s Dave Foley took advantage of a loose ball following an Islanders’ corner kick, punching his header into the net to give the visitors an early 1-0 lead.
A tentative game of back-and-forth would complete the first half and launch the second, with each team clearly fearful of committing a game-costing mistake. Some promising linking between Budnyy, Paladini and Russell in the 60th minute only resulted in an offside call, a common occurrence all evening in the RailHawks’ attacking third. A near-miss by Puerto Rico in the 63rd minute brought handball complaints from the Islanders. Carolina nearly put away an empty goal score in the 74th.
Then, as it appeared these otherwise capable clubs would will themselves to a draw, the Ghost of RailHawk losses Past would again rattle its chains. A Keon Daniel cross from the left corner traveled unimpeded until it rebounded off the head of the Sandy Gbandi and floated past Platter to give Puerto Rico a 2-1 advantage. Then, two minutes later, Marco Velez sent another ball into the box, where it nicked off Nick Addlery’s head on its way to nylon and a 3-1 Islanders’ lead.
Carolina would make some stoppage time noise when a shot by Cory Elenio by blocked back to Shields, whose subsequent cross into the goalmouth was bounded about before finding Paladini’s fortuitous foot, giving him a bittersweet brace and cutting the goal deficit to one. As the team raced back to midfield in hopes of accelerating kickoff and one last shot at a miracle finish, however, the celebratory streamers hurled into the penalty area after Paladini’s goal by the RailHawks’ supporters gave Gaudette—already a virtuoso at time-wasting—even more ammunition to stymie the launch of Carolina’s would-be final attack.
“We were unfortunate to go down a goal in the first half considering how well we played,” said Rennie. “In the second half, [Puerto Rico] played very well. They came on top of us, and we didn’t defend well enough...Ultimately, tonight we lost three goals from crosses and headers. I think that would tell you where the main issues lie. Balls are coming into the box and we’re not dealing with them.”
After not giving up more than two goals in a game all year, Carolina has now done so twice in three games, each with Platter in goal. When asked about how the RailHawks need to improve heading into the final stages of the season, Paladini was characteristically blunt.
“Just not giving up silly goals,” he stated. “That’s kind of been our season. We’re creating tons of chances, and we need to be able to finish those so we’re more comfortable. Then, we can sit back and control the game. But, if we’re giving up silly goals, then it’s going to put us under pressure to have to score five goals a game. It shouldn’t have to be like that.”
The RailHawks’ next match will be at WakeMed Park on Friday, September 3 against Crystal Palace Baltimore. Two days later, the RailHawks play host to Mexican second division side Pumas Morelos for a friendly that will feature an appearance by retired soccer legend Claudio Suárez.