The Carolina RailHawks (6-1-1) continued their supreme early season high, swamping the Islanders 3-0 at WakeMed Soccer Park to avenge an April 9 opening day home loss. The win also solidifies the RailHawks’ standing atop the NASL table, seven points clear of second-place NSC Minnesota.
Carolina once again rode to victory behind the white hot foot of Etienne Barbara, who notched another brace—his third this year—to extend his consecutive match scoring streak to eight and his league-leading goal tally to 11. Barbara also added an assist, giving him three this season and 25 points overall, both of them tops in the NASL. (Barbara is actually tied for the league lead in assists with teammate Floyd Franks.)
Carolina started the match on their front foot and never let up. In the 11th minute, Barbara sent a short-range cross to a waiting Nick Zimmerman near the top of the box. With minutes to think about the shot, however, Zimmerman somehow managed to flare his attempt left of the target. In the 23rd minute, another clever, curling cross by Barbara from off the left wing was headed wide by Pablo Campos.
Finally, in the 26th minute, midfielder Jonny Steele made a galloping run past the Islanders’ defense before playing the ball off to Barbara in the goal mouth. Islanders goalkeeper Richard Martin dove right, anticipating a clean attempt by the Maltese striker. Barbara says that, seeing this, he instead misdirected the ball with the outside of his left foot. Game footage makes a case that Barbara mishit the ball, allowing it to dribble across the line past an out-of-position keeper. Either way, it was the sort of goal that often fortuitously finds its way to a hot striker.
Although Puerto Rico came out of intermission pushing forward, their hopes were dashed in the 53rd minute when Campos, who had struggled with his touch and control all night, played a pinpoint through-ball into space beyond a streaking, onside Barbara. Barbara gathered his dribble and buried his blast past Martin to give Carolina a 2-0 lead.
With Knighton diving to save a close-range header by Islander captain Noah Delgado and the RailHawks maintaining pressure in the attacking third, Puerto Rico essentially raised the white flag in the 64th minute. Coach Colin Clarke subbed out both leading scorer Jonathan Faña and Osei Telesford, presumably to jump-start their rest for a midweek match the Islanders—who were already playing without an injured Nicholas Addlerly and Gregory Richardson—have against Alpha United of Guyana in the semifinals of the CFU Club Championship.
The tenacious RailHawks took immediate advantage. Barbara returned Campos’ favor, playing a nearly identical through-ball ahead of his forward partner, which the Brazilian slotted home for his fourth goal of the season. To date, Barbara and Campos have accounted for 15 of the 18 goals scored by Carolina in 2011.
In truth, Campos should have added two or three goals to his total, as he made several deep runs into the box but failed to pull the trigger quickly enough. The most promising opportunity came in the 82nd minute, when Campos tried to maneuver around a rushing-out Martin instead of chipping it over the keeper, which allowed the Islanders defense to catch up and stymie the threat.
It is difficult to muster any overt negatives with the recent play of the RailHawks, who also notched their second clean sheet this year. Still, the unspoken, ticking time bomb is their lack of depth beyond the starting defensive backline, a fact illuminated when fullback Devon McKenney went down with an ankle injury in the 85th minute, necessitating the insertion of midfielder Cory Elenio in his stead.
“We knew it was a big game tonight,” confessed RailHawks manager Martin Rennie. “A lot of people questioned us after the game we lost to them earlier in the season. And, Puerto Rico is a strong team and will always be one of our biggest rivals. But, we performed really well tonight. We had to work hard for it, but I was really pleased.”
Barbara’s Ruthian exploits are quickly becoming the stuff of local lore. Homemade banners in his honor were seen in the crowd of 3,498 who watched tonight’s match, the highest attendance for a RailHawks regular season home match since 2009. After the game, some parents handed Barbara their children over the guardrail for a photo op. Kids clamored for his autograph, and more than one lass was seen batting her eyelashes in his direction.
“The biggest thing, obviously, is that he’s scoring goals,” says Rennie about his leading scorer. “But, the second biggest thing is how hard he’s working for the team. That’s different than how he was last season. Last season he scored some goals, but [now] he’s really working for the team and setting an example.”
Barbara’s surging popularity took a curious turn earlier this week when the issue of his ongoing exclusion from the Malta national football team somehow found its way into two nicely written profiles, one by a reporter from his native country and another by a Raleigh News & Observer sports writer who hasn’t covered a RailHawks match all season.
For his part, Barbara says he no longer concerns himself with whether he will play for Malta again, saying “I just want to play where they love me.” Yet, that comment came at the end of a two-minute soliloquy on Barbara’s history with his national team and his estranged relationship with Malta head coach John Buttigieg.
The timing of this issue being raised also coincides with Malta’s upcoming international calendar. Barbara was not called up for Malta’s loss to Greece on March 26, 2011, prior to the 28-year-old joining the RailHawks but after having played six matches this year with the Sliema Wanderers of the Maltese Premier League. Malta, which is winless in five matches during UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying, faces possible elimination from the tournament if they lose again to Greece on June 4, a match that will be played in Piraeus, Greece.
In the meantime, Malta’s loss is the RailHawks gain, and Rennie hopes the energy from tonight’s match carries over to next Saturday’s home clash with the Atlanta Silverbacks and beyond.
“It kind of felt like our first home game of the year in the sense that the crowd was fantastic and they made it feel like a playoff game. There was really an electric atmosphere.”