by Joe Schwartz
After conceding two goals from setpieces in a crushing stoppage-time defeat in their home opener last weekend, RailHawks coach Martin Rennie said the team spent all week focusing on defending corners and free kicks.
That made it all the more frustrating Saturday night when in the 11th minute Montreal Impact defender Kevin Hatchi was left unmarked along the back post and smashed home from a corner kick.
“We just completely switched off, there was a player wide open,” Rennie said.
Luckily they still had 79 minutes to turn the game around.
They didn’t need that long.
The RailHawks won a corner of their own 10 minutes later. Midfielder Floyd Franks served in the cross to captain Brad Rusin whose free header was cleared from the line. The ball sprayed back out to Franks who whipped it back into the box where winger Nick Zimmerman nodded on to striker Pablo Campos, who nicked it to partner Etienne Barbara. The Maltese striker’s shot deflected off a defender, leaving Montrael Impact goalkeeper Bill Gaudette stranded.
In the 34th minute, Carolina RailHawks midfielder Matt Watson was going to play a pass out wide, but just before he released the ball, Campos’s flamboyant boots flashed across his vision.
“I don't know if you've seen them, they are like bright green, and honestly I just caught them out of the corner of my eyes, and I just slipped him in into that little gap, he took a good touch and a good finish.”
The strike erased the early one-goal deficit in 24 minutes and proved to be the match-winner. It marked only the third time in club history that the RailHawks have won when conceding first, all occurring in the past two seasons under Rennie. It also made Watson the club’s all-time assists leader with 10.
“It was really frustrating and disappointing to lose the first goal the way we did because we worked on set plays all week long, and we just completely switched off. There was a player wide open, so that was frustrating, but they showed great character to come back,” Rennie said.
“Teams that are going to do well have to show character and we showed that tonight, and we also showed a fair bit of quality scoring those two goals.”
They also showed an ability to stick to playing soccer in a fixture that often is rife with extracurricular shoving and fierce tackling.
Despite a history of persistent fouling, ejections and last year’s semifinal match where the RailHawks knocked out the Impact on the strength of two controversial offsides calls and Montreal personnel had to be restrained after the final whistle, this game only had one coming together.
Rusin took exception to a challenge by talismanic Impact striker Ali Gerba, who caught the Carolina captain’s suspended leg on a follow through, spinning him in a circle.
After Rusin leapt to his feet and pointed a finger, the teams were separated and Gerba earned a yellow card.
Impact midfielder Amir Lowery who appeared in 54 games for the RailHawks in two seasons and moved to Montreal because the club will play in the MLS next season said the dust-up “definitely looked familiar.”
Even for a relatively calm RailHawks-Impact encounter, Campos’s ripped collar showed just how physical the play was on the pitch.
“I told the guys, ‘Man, if you hug me like that take my number, take me out to dinner. I'm not that easy,'” Campos joked. “It's how it is. It's a classic. It's a rival so it's going to be tough. It's never going to come easy.”
But all of the jersey ripping didn’t result in much offense in the second half. . Rennie said his team played too tentatively and were perhaps “a little bit nervous” and “protected the lead maybe a little bit more than we needed to.” After creating nine shots in the first 45 minutes, Carolina only mustered five in the second stanza.
Still, after dropping a point in the dying embers in last week’s season opener against Puerto Rico, a 2-1 loss, Rennie will be pleased with the three points.
The RailHawks are now undefeated in their last six matches against the hated Impact at WakeMed. They take on Edmonton FC in Cary at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
But front office folks can’t be happy with their attendance totals thus far, which have been hampered by a thunderstorm causing a two-hour delay last week and a tornado this week causing many to wonder if the game would be played as scheduled.
Unfortunately only 1,219 fans were at the park to witness the Montreal match. Last week 2,016 attended. The park seats 7,000.
“We have a fantastic venue. Of its size, it’s certainly world class,” says team president Curt Johnson. “The reality is we are still working to fill it.”
He says he isn’t setting number targets for attendance, rather he aims for “growth in passion, growth in connection to the organization, grow in relationships and growth in knowledge about our team.”
“Numbers are important and it’s part of creating a business that grows and is stable over a long period of time, but the real fabric of it is creating a game-day environment and a team that people just can’t not come watch,” he said.
They already have a select group, the Triangle Soccer Fanatics, whose members do build their calendars around the RailHawks schedule. Johnson believes that group is key to building an audience, part of the atmosphere fans expect when heading to soccer matches.
The club agreed to move the supporters’s section from behind the goal in section 204 to the east stands, the new Hooters 309 Depot, at the same pricing level. There you will find chanting, song, drums beating and girls dressed in orange track suits passing out coupons.
The group has also expanded the “Hawk Walk” where flag and scarf-bearing fans march into the stadium just prior to kickoff singing RailHawks tunes, and they are hosting pre-game tailgates with homebrew and hotdogs.
Adding to the atmosphere, the RailHawks played music for corner kicks during the last week's game and a “get ‘er done” track before free kicks, but not at Saturday's match.
Johnson says in his time working in professional soccer, which includes work with the Richmond Kickers and Kansas City Wizards, he gets more e-mails on audio during games than anything else. Purists hate it. Others, those expecting a minor-league experience similar to the Durham Bulls, expect it.
Johnson says there’s “a place for it, although it’s not a large place,” adding that some audio is needed to add to the game intensity.
“My perspective on music or no music would likely change if the stadium is full,” he said.
The new front office team, on the job for three months also has attempted to work toward a full stadium through discounted mini-season ticket plans, corporate partnerships like the one with Progress Energy where the company will match any nonprofit who buys 50 tickets or more, and hosting post-game meals where fans can interact with players at BrickHouse Sports Pub and receive $3 off their purchase with a ticket stub.
Johnson also will host Linking the Triangle, a group of young networking professionals in his suite for Wednesday’s contest against Edmonton FC. He’ll speak about how to grow a business and create fans.
“The offseason, which I call the selling season, was only about a month long really. Normally a number of the things that we are doing now in the front office are done in November and December in preparation for a season,” Johnson said.
“We are building this business a day at a time. We have a long-range view of what we are doing here, and that’s why I don’t get too caught up in specific numbers now. It’s more about hiring the right people and building the right relationships.”