For those just tuning in, the Cary-based RailHawks are playing for the championship of second-division soccer in North America and the Carribean. After steadily picking up their stride after opening the season in uncertain fashion, the squad has convincing made its way past NSC Minnesota and Montreal in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In Bayamon, P.R., tonight at 6 p.m., the RailHawks kick off for the first leg in a two-game series against the Puerto Rico Islanders.
[A note about the scoring. Judging by a conversation Triangle Offense had with bewildered fans during the second semifinal game against Montreal, it's clear that it's worth explaining the aggregate scoring system. Very simply, the USSF-D2 champion will be determined by the aggregate score of the two games. In essence, the final is a single 180-minute game, with the first 90 minutes to be played tonight and the second 90 to be played this Saturday, Oct. 30 in Cary. Should the score be tied after 180 minutes, there will be two 15-minute overtime periods, to be followed, if necessary, by a penalty-kick shootout.]
The RailHawks will be facing a formidable opponent in the Islanders. While it's tempting to count Colin Clarke's team as an underdog because they were the last team to qualify for the playoffs, finishing eighth in a 12-team league, such a conclusion would be mistaken. The Islanders have two burdens other clubs don't. By virtue of being located in the 18th parallel, between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands, they have no short road trips. They're a rugged, indefatigable side.
More importantly, their hard travels through North American airspace is in the service of incredibly strong opposition. As one of the few reliably strong Caribbean soccer clubs, Puerto Rico is perennially involved in the CONCACAF Champions League, which is, for all practical purposes, unavailable to U.S.-based second-division clubs.
This latter commitment kept the Islanders busy with eight extra games played between July 27 and Oct. 20. Most notoriously, on July 27 and Aug. 4, the Islanders prevailed over the Los Angeles Galaxy in a 5-3 aggregate victory, including a 4-1 humiliation of a lineup that included World Cup stalwarts Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle before their home fans in the Home Depot Center.
That upset entitled the Islanders to join the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League, which meant games against Mexican, Salvadoran and Honduran clubs. Last weekend, the Islanders were in Vancouver to beat the Whitecaps to advance to the USSF-D2 final against the RailHawks, but on the way home, they had to stop in Tegucigalpa for their final CONCACAF group game, against C.D. Olimpia. A win would have sent Puerto Rico to the quarterfinals, but Olimpia was too strong, winning 3-0.
RailHawks coach Martin Rennie acknowledged that fatigue will be an issue for the Islanders, but he doesn't expect his team to catch any breaks tonight. "You'd think [it'd be a factor], but it doesn't seem to affect them as much as other people, but they've been playing games all the time. With travel, there's no way around it, it does take a lot out of you. So it could be a factor, yes."
In contrast, the RailHawks have spent most of the season's second half playing at home (10 of 15 games, in fact). "I think that's helped us," Rennie said. "We've peaked at the right time."
The 180-minute game lends itself to a certain brutal logic, as the visiting team in the first leg will try to keep the game scoreless as long as possible. Rennie acknowledged as much after Friday's practice session.
"You want the game to be alive when you get home," Rennie said.
In the first semifinal leg in Montreal, the RailHawks started from a defensive crouch, with a single striker up top—Etienne Barbara, rather than the in-form Tommy Heinemann—and two holding midfielders, Marques Davidson and Amir Lowery. The strategy was very nearly successful; the RailHawks nearly earned a clean sheet but for Leonardo DiLorenzo's exploitation of Eric Reed's inability to get his wall set in time. See it unfold from an excellent angle in this home video.
Tonight at Estadio Juan Ramón Loubriel, look for the RailHawks to try to grind out a one- or no-goal game.
Kickoff is at 6 p.m. Tune into the webcast at carolinarailhawks.com. The return leg is Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m.