It wasn't the RailHawks that landed on their butt—it was an expansion team, AC St. Louis, coached by Nicolas Anelka's brother Claude, that became the object of derision in the soccer world. They started that game with 10 players, a condition that remained the same for 30 minutes. In that time, the RailHawks' bright, shiny new signing, Etienne Barbara, scored the only two goals the RailHawks needed.
(Things would get much worse for AC St. Louis before they got better, and they ended the season strongly on the field, thanks in part to a solid year from ex-RailHawk Luke Kreamalmayer and also some fortuitous loans.)
After getting out of the gate in such a strong fashion, the RailHawks sort of settled into the middle of the pack going into the first turn, taking a major bump with a second-round exit from the U.S. Open Cup in June, courtesy of the Charleston Battery. Playing 90 minutes but not scoring that night for the Battery was one Tommy Heinemann. No one knew it then, but the RailHawks' Mr. October (and Mr. September) was on the field that night.
The team's performance got sluggish enough that coach Martin Rennie, after a midseason non-result that saw lots of blown chances, uncharacteristically displayed impatience with his players, saying words to the effect of, "If [our forwards] can't put the ball in the net, we'll find someone who can."
First of those reinforcements was Allan Russell. He arrived from the Scottish Premier League in early summer and proved to a hardworking player who linked well but was only marginally more productive than Budnyy, with two goals and two assists in 17 appearances to date.
But it would be September before the RailHawks would find their go-to target man, and it would be he guy who helped knock them out of the Open Cup in June.
The 6-foot-4 Heinemann, a 23-year-old talent from St. Louis, joined the RailHawks on loan after the Battery won the USL-2 championship on Aug. 28. In his 11 games in a Carolina uniform (he's played every contest since joining the team), the RailHawks have scored 18 goals, with Heinemann scoring five of them. The RailHawks' record with him on the team is six wins, three losses and two draws.
No goal was more critical than his game-winner over Montreal in the return leg against Montreal, the controversial one that put the RailHawks into the final.
But a powerful new target man isn't the only story for the RailHawks, of course. Their home form has been sensational, and it precedes Heinemann, going back to a 2-0 victory over Miami on Aug. 18. Starting then, the RailHawks have been 6-1-1 at home, scoring 18 goals and conceding six. (I got this stat wrong on a tweet I sent a few days ago; shame on me for not fact-checking).
The robust defense is something of a marvel, considering that the RailHawks are ending the season with a very different back line from the one that started it. Mark Schulte, the team's 33-year-old captain, sustained a season-ending injury in August. Four other defensive mainstays suffered significant injuries: Matt Bobo, John Gilkerson, Greg Shields and Kupono Low. Into the breach came mid-season signings Daniel Woolard and Devon McKenney, as well as short-term replacement David Hayes.
And improbably, it's 24-year-old Brad Rusin, a still-raw 6-foot-5 central defender and midfielder, who is the anchor of the defense, and the wearer of the captain's armband. Rusin was slated to transfer to a second-division side in Denmark in August; that deal didn't transpire as intended, and now Rusin has to be faultless in the back if the RailHawks are going to climb out of the two-goal deficit they face tonight.
Ah, tonight. It's going to be the biggest night of the year at WakeMed Soccer Park. Attendance this season has not lived up to the ambitions of the team's ownership—nor to the quality Rennie has put on the field. But for one night, it appears that the RailHawks will have the crowd they deserve. The RailHawks are twittering about 4,000, and indeed, the main grandstands are just about full. If it weren't for Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins a few miles away at RBC Center, and Jon Stewart a few hours up I-95, perhaps there would be even more. Perhaps with strong walk-up sales, attendance could approach the 6,257 that turned out for the first leg in Bayamón, P.R.
What? You haven't bought your tickets? Click right here.
Kick-off is 7 p.m. Plan to arrive by 6 or 6:15, though. Between the hockey traffic and the typical bottleneck at WakeMed, you'll save yourself a lot of stress by arriving early.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
1. The RailHawks must outscore the Islanders by at least two goals. At the end of normal time, it's that simple. If they're level on aggregate after 90, two 15-minute periods will ensue, to be followed by penalty kicks.
2. Can the defense stay organized? Although the patchwork defense has been pretty good overall, they simply cannot afford to make the awful lapses on set pieces they've had in their last two losses. Like against Montreal here and Puerto Rico here (at 4:20).
3. How quickly do the RailHawks go on the offensive? The RailHawks have to find two goals while not yielding. Do they press from the outset? Or do they bide their time, looking to wear down the Puerto Rico defense and find counterattacks? I'm guessing the latter, with an infusion of fresh legs midway through the second half. Both of the previous home victories were return-leg games, and both were won with second-half goals.
4. Who will play right back? Greg Shields is one of the best in the league, but he's been out with injury for six weeks. Devon McKenney was signed to help fill the gap, but he was hurt two weeks ago against Montreal. Cory Elenio, a versatile workhorse, has been playing right back in their stead, but he's not the same threat down the flank. Rennie has held out the possibility that Shields might return to fitness, but this would be a huge game for him to make his first appearance since Sept. 15.
5. The Daniel Paladini effect The team's dynamic midfield playmaker and clutch performer was left off the starting lineup last weekend in Puerto Rico, and remained on the bench, unused. One can only surmise that the atrocious condition of the pitch—and the inelegant long-ball play that resulted—made Rennie feel that Paladini would be ill-suited to the game. Or it could have been something else. Regardless, he'll surely be in the lineup tonight. He's the team's points leader on seven goals and five assists. He's a "give-me-the-ball" kind of player, and the RailHawks will need his confidence and his poise under pressure.
6. Here's my lineup prediction. Guaranteed to be wrong!
——Heinemann — Richardson—-
7. Scouting Puerto Rico
****Jonathan Faña got himself suspended for this game after picking up a boneheaded yellow card last game that put him over the limit for accumulation.
****Second-leading scoring Nicholas Addlery is recovering fitfully from knee surgery. He has missed two games in a row—look for him to start on the bench if he's at all fit. If the Islanders get into trouble, look out for him.
****The team's leading scorer is David Foley, the team's signing from England's League One Hartlepool. He has nine goals and should be on the field.
****Goalkeeper Bill Gaudette is a strong veteran keeper (check out his save of Kupono Low's 35-yard screamer at 7:25 of the video linked above). He's also a shameless but ruthlessly effective time-waster. He'll be formidable at killing off the last few minutes, so the RailHawks had better equalize before he can begin conducting his black arts.
8. Final note: This will be the final game in the history of the USSF-D2 Pro League. Kudos to the U.S. Soccer Federation for holding together second-division play this year. Now, after this game, the hard work of building lower-division soccer in North America resumes.