by Neil Morris
Unfortunately for Carolina, the rematch yielded another victory for Puerto Rico, as the RailHawks fell to the Islanders 2-1 thanks to Jay Needham’s goal late in stoppage time.
In that some might claim the RailHawks’ survival is partly the product of divine intervention following their offseason travails, it is fitting that Saturday night’s match took place in biblical conditions. With wind, fog, and a deluge that swung from vertical to horizontal at a moment’s notice, all that was missing was the hail and locusts.
The game was a story told in three parts. The opening 9:49 of the match were dominated by the RailHawks despite the absence of four first-teamers watching from the climate-controlled comfort of the press box. Team captain Brad Rusin was serving a one-game suspension for the red card he received during last year’s championship match. Newcomers Chris Nurse and Kithson Bain were inactive, Nurse because of a hamstring pull and Bain due to lingering issues with his immigration papers from Grenada. And, there’s a 50/50 chance Gregory Richardson will be part of an MLS club sometime next week.
Once the heavens opened up and lightning started to strike, the players were sent to their locker rooms and those fans who chose to brave the elements took shelter in the stadium concourse. Over the next 1 hour 50 minutes, team officials kept an eye on the Doppler radar while a rain-themed playlist rang over the PA system — regular favs like “Stormy Weather,” “It’s Raining Men,” “Here Comes the Rain Again,” and “Purple Rain” were joined by such recent additions as Rihanna’s “Umbrella.”
Play eventually resumed once the rain subsided, albeit temporarily. But for a bog that stood in one half of the south end of the pitch, the two-plus inches of rain helped demonstrate how tremendous the turf is at WakeMed Soccer Park.
However, the teams that reentered the field bore little resemblance to the ones that left nearly two hours before, as Puerto Rico came out the faster and more aggressive side.
After Islanders midfielder Josh Hansen had a shot blocked by RailHawks goalkeeper Brad Knighton in the 31st minute, Hansen recovered a minute later to stick back a loose ball off an Islanders’ throw-in, giving Puerto Rico a 1-0 lead.
“I felt Puerto Rico came out stronger after the [delay],” said RailHawks’ head coach Martin Rennie. “They fought us fairly even until they got a goal on a set play which we should have defended better.”
Carolina put together a couple of scoring opportunities before halftime, including a header by defender Cory Miller — making his professional soccer debut — off a Kupono Low corner kick that bounded just left of the goal.
In the 54th minute, another loose ball was swallowed by the south-end swamp inside Puerto Rico’s penalty area, giving Matt Watson a close-range shot. However, Islanders keeper Ray Burse made a diving save to preserve their lead.
In the 58th minute, RailHawks midfielder Jonny Steele celebrated his return to the Carolina roster by commemorating his old JailHawks days. Steele’s hard tackle of defender Scott Jones in front of Puerto Rico’s bench drew a yellow card that mysteriously transformed into a straight red after lots of protest and shoving by the Islanders.
“I was disappointed that the referee gave a yellow card then gave a red card,” said Rennie. “He changed his mind. I think he was influenced by other people.”
As often happens in the soccer universe, however, the team down a man began to outplay the full-strength squad. The RailHawks were forced to jettison their ineffective long balls forward and maintain possession by linking up and playing the ball down.
Still, Carolina could not manufacture a goal. Forward Pablo Campos, making an inauspicious RailHawks debut, made a dribble run into the heart of the penalty area in the 62nd minute but declined to pull the trigger on a shot. A minute later, Brian Farber’s steal and dish to Campos in the box ended with the striker sailing a cross high and well out-of-bounds.
After a couple of other chances came up short — including a 25-yard Low free kick that flew just over the crossbar — Rennie substituted Etienne Barbara for Campos in the 79th minute. Barbara, last year’s RailHawks goal-scoring leader, only arrived in North Carolina from Malta late Friday night after a roughly 15-hour flight.
“To be quite honest, I was very surprised when at three o’clock the coach called me up and told me I had to sit on the bench,” said Barbara. “Because of the time difference I didn’t sleep at all, so I wasn’t really prepared for a game.”
Nonetheless, Barbara soon made his much-needed presence felt. In the 85th minute, after a 25-yard free kick by Floyd Franks was saved by Burse, Etienne gathered the rebound inside the box and drew a penalty.
“There was a rebound and I got to the ball and turned around,” recalls Barbara. “I don’t know which player made contact, but he pushed me a little bit and I fell down. I looked for [the foul], to be honest — thank God [the referee] gave it to me.”
After declining to relinquish the spot to Low, Barbara’s stutter-step PK equalized the score and appeared to give both Barbara a sleepy storybook return and the RailHawks a welcome come-from-behind draw.
However, with the rain again torrential, the Islanders seemed to thrive on such late-game aquatics. Knighton, who made three of his seven saves during the four minutes of full-time stoppage, finally succumbed in the waning seconds of the match after an Islanders’ corner kick found Needham’s diving head for a pointblank deflection up and into the back of the net.
“I think we may have had too many people on the front part of the goal and not enough picking up on the back post,” said Knighton. “The corner was a really good ball across the six, and it was pretty much a tap-in from there.”
“[After the red card] my guys stuck at it and kept going,” said Rennie. “We got a goal and honestly looked like a team that was going to win the game. The last three minutes, we were under pressure and probably had at least three guys out there who aren’t 90 minutes fit. So, it’s just a sickening blow at the end, but I couldn’t be any prouder of my guys.”
In addition to Barbara’s late-game heroics, several other RailHawks played well, notably Watson, Farber, and Cory Elenio, who came on as a late-game substitute. On the other hand, Campos struggled all night with his touch, pace, and decision-making. Steele delivered a couple of good crosses in the first half, but he also made some costly mistakes after intermission including a reckless red — whether deserved or not — that put his team a man down while already trailing and puts Steele out-of-action for at least one additional match, possibly more.
However, the real gathering storm cloud is the RailHawks’ lack of defensive depth. The regular starting backline is a stout and experienced group. But, Rusin’s absence meant that Miller, a budding talent who graduates from college next month and had never played a professional soccer match, got the start. The only defensive substitute was Kyle Schmid, whose signing with Carolina is his professional soccer contract.
Rennie, however, urges patience and perspective.
“Judge us in a few weeks,” he asks. “Once we get together, get fit, and guys get clicking, I think we’ll be really strong. Tonight was just a ‘start-stop’ kind of night, and when you’re down to ten men it’s always difficult. But, what I did see tonight was good character and good determination.
“It’s just one of those nights. You lose a goal with 15 seconds left after coming back with ten men to make it 1-1. So, it’s a bad day. You move on. That’s it.”