Playing on an unseasonably warm October evening in Minnesota (60 degrees at kickoff!), the two sides cut and thrust and parried, and each had a fair share of chances to snag a goal. The fact that the night's referee was the infamous Jamey Walter held the promise of a goal to be awarded by official fiat. But ultimately, neither side was willing or able to snatch the victory.
Both teams came out in something like a 4-4-2 formation. While the Stars tended to blow their shots—including a ball that Simone Bracalello allowed to trickle unmolested across the face of the Carolina goal—the RailHawks were missing quality on their final passes, repeatedly failing to find teammates in space behind the defensive line.
Probably no play illustrated this as much as the first-half incident in which Gregory Richardson found himself just outside the six-yard box with a defender and a goalkeeper in total disarray. Instead of winding up for a shot, he waited (and waited and waited) for Josh Gardner to stroll by.
What was Richardson thinking about during those long longueurs of longingness as he lingered over the ball, as if it was Proust's madeleine?
Perhaps Richardson was distracted by the many other interesting things happening today in the world of sport:
1. Halladay pitches a no-hitter for the Phillies!
2. The New England Patriots trade Randy Moss to Minnesota!
3. The Boston Red Sox purchase Liverpool FC!
4. The formerly awesome but now sucky Austin Aztex have gone a goal down at Montreal!
5. Hmm... that Fernando Torres isn't looking too good these days. Might Liverpool be interested in a 28-year-old Guyanese striker?
6. Hey, the New York Yankees are in town, playing the Twins at Target Field!
7. Is that Randy Moss who's watching me up there?
Richardson's reverie was likely disrupted at this point, when Gardner arrived and looked at his watch. Then the two men exchanged glances. At this point, a pass was attempted which, had it been completed successfully, might have given Gardner the opportunity to score.
In the second half, Minnesota's midfield became increasingly influential and began winning balls frequently and early. This forced Carolina coach Martin Rennie to switch holding midfielders in the 65th minute, subbing in Amir Lowery for Marques Davidson. The more versatile Davidson has been getting the starts as the team has adopted the 4-4-2 diamond, but Lowery was the enforcer that was needed to restore order in the center of the pitch.
After Lowery's entrance, the RailHawks began winning balls earlier and retaining possession longer, a state of increased readiness that lasted for about 15 minutes. The last 10 minutes or so saw two teams that were bereft of ideas, so when Rusin found himself at the end of a 50-yard spot kick from Floyd Franks at the end of stoppage time, it was fitting that he sent it wide.
The 0-0 score reduces the 180-minute game to the 90 minutes on Saturday that will determine who goes through to the next round. Right now, the semifinal opponent looks likely to be the Montreal Impact, who decisively beat the Austin Aztex tonight, 2-0.
Minnesota and their coach, Manny Lagos, have to be feeling good about their position heading to Cary. The RailHawks have not scored in three games this season against Minnesota, and they haven't scored a post-season goal in the history of the franchise. Furthermore, the Stars have to be the favorite should the game go to penalty kicks: They've got an expert penalty saver in Joe Warren.
Still, the RailHawks have a potent attack that has gotten progressively stronger with the additions of Etienne Barbara, Allan Russell and Tom Heinemann. Saturday would be a good time to use it.
Kickoff is 7 p.m. Visit www.carolinarailhawks.com for ticket information.