Carolina manager Martin Rennie made good on his promise that the RailHawks would adopt a conservative approach for the away match, with the intention of keeping the score close entering next week’s second leg at WakeMed Soccer Park. The RailHawks’ starting lineup included Matt Watson, Floyd Franks, Amir Lowery and Josh Gardner at midfield, with Etienne Barbara and Tom Heinemann responsible for the attacking third. However, this left newly named 2010 USSF D2 Best XI midfielder Daniel Paladini and Gregory Richardson (again) on the bench. Richardson would eventually see action; Paladini, curiously, would never see the pitch.
Speaking of the pitch, I am fairly positive a ball dropped sometime during the first half of play is still bouncing along the patchwork playing surface covering Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium. The Islanders’ true home field advantage isn’t just its lively fans but the field itself, and the RailHawks appeared to struggle all evening with its uneven recoils.
Rennie’s strategy appeared to pay off for the first half, although that advantage was more a consequence of divine providence and fortuitous referee whistles as the Islanders controlled the pace of play from the outset. In the 18th minute, a scrum in front of the RailHawks’ goalmouth nearly netted a score for Islanders’ forward Josh Hansen. However, RailHawks' goalkeeper Eric Reed snatched the ball off the turf mere millimeters before it crossed the goaline.
In the 40th minute, Puerto Rico appeared to take the lead off a 6-yard stick-back from Sandy Gbandi. However, the referee called Gbandi for a foul and disallowed the goal, much to the vocal consternation of the Islanders’ faithful.
Any halftime optimism by the RailHawks was erased in the 49th minute, when an unmarked Gbandi took a long throw-in from Marco Velez and volleyed it past Reed for a 1-0 lead.
Heinemann nearly equalized for Carolina in the 52nd minute, but his close-range header bounded off the right post. Meanwhile, the Islanders’ Chris Nurse and David Foley failed to convert scoring chances in the 58th and 65th minutes.
Richardson finally entered the match in the 69th minute, and the move paid immediate attacking dividends. Now pushing forward, the RailHawks created more chances in the front third thanks to Richardson’s speed. The fleet-footed forward’s first touch in the 73rd minute resulted in a cross to Gardner, whose left-foot volley was blocked by Islanders’ veteran keeper Bill Gaudette.
In the 79th minute, RailHawks’ defender Kupono Low blasted a 30-yard rocket that stayed on frame but was deflected away by Gaudette at the last moment.
With the RailHawks pushing forward, Puerto Rico counterattacked against a tired, disorganized defense in the 87th minute when substitute Jonathan Faña somehow split Carolina’s backline and powered past Reed to punch home the Islanders’ second goal of the match.
The hill facing the RailHawks next Saturday is made steeper by Puerto Rico’s familiarity with the two-leg playoffs and big games in general, which they regularly encounter throughout the season during their concurrent CONCACAF competitions. Carolina managed two goals against Montreal last Sunday, but replicating that feat may be more difficult against the game Islanders, and even then will only earn Carolina 30 minutes of extra time during which they will have to muster a third goal while still holding their opponent scoreless.
Expect to see more offensive firepower on the field for the RailHawks next Saturday, Oct. 30, at WakeMed Soccer Park … including Daniel Paladini.