Etienne Barbara's record-setting scoring streak ended at eight games Saturday, but his two assists earned the Carolina RailHawks a more important feat—the club has now won a franchise-high five games on the trot.
Barbara's turn and delicate chip to the back post found strike partner Pablo Campos in the box in the 81st minute and the Brazilian's diving header ended the stalemate with the last place Atlanta Silverbacks, still winless in the league.
The pseudo-married couple is combining well enough for Barbara to lead the NASL in goals (11) and assists (5) and the Maltese striker became the team's all-time leading scorer during his incredible streak.
He came close to extending the run, notching five shots on the night. The best of the bunch came in stoppage time when his toe poke from point-blank range was turned away by Atlanta goalkeeper Felipe Quintero.
"Today I couldn't score. I was hitting every guy," Barbara said. "Every shot was hitting someone. I should have scored the last one. I thought the keeper was going to go down or something. I don't know, it just wasn't my day to score."
But it was his day to create the goals.
The RailHawks killed the game off in stoppage time when speedy substitute winger Brian Farber's through pass found Barbara along the right and he rolled a ball across the six-yard box and onto the waiting foot of substitute Scotsman Allan Russell, who provided the needed tap in.
But Coach Martin Rennie says the team knows that the performance was not good enough, particularly in the first half where the RailHawks "were a little bit flat" and did not apply themselves enough to win the ball from the SIlverbacks.
"You have to work for everything you get in this game. In the first half we didn't work hard enough," Rennie said. "In the second, we did, and we got rewards for that. … Our whole team can do better. We are pleased that we are winning, but in truth, we can do better."
The match, which drew 3,015 fans, was billed as the renewal of a Southern rivalry with Atlanta returning to competition after a two-year hiatus. The Silverbacks are the closest geographic opponent to Carolina in the eight-team NASL, but the two sides are much farther apart in the standings.
The RailHawks (7-1-1) sit in first and have scored a league-leading 20 goals, never being shut out, and have conceded a league-low eight. By contrast, Atlanta (0-2-6) are on the bottom of the standings, haven't found the back of the net in four matches and have allowed 13 goals, the most in NASL.
But despite the gulf in quality and in the standings between the two sides, the game was rather lackluster for large stretches.
"I don't know if we took it a bit for granted because they are last in the table, but we started not really so good," Barbara said. "I think the whole first half was a disappointment. In the second half, we stepped up our tempo. We scored two, we could have scored more."
Atlanta looked more likely to score in the opening stages, and Knighton did well to collect Mattias Schnorf's header from a corner kick in the fifth minute before making an agile double save in the 16th.
The North Carolina native between the goalposts palmed away a low strike from Matt Horth and then scrambled across his line and sucked in an attempted tap-in from Raphael Cox from six yards out.
But the RailHawks created chances of their own. In the 26th John Krause had two cracks from a corner kick that captain Brad Rusin headed across the face of goal to Nik Zimmerman who headed it to Krause who hit the crossbar and headed the rebound over the goal.
Later in the 44th minute Carolina had an apparent goal disallowed after Etienne played a cheeky outside of the right foot lofted dink to Campos who chested the ball and tucked it into the side netting, but referee Jose Cralos Rivero ruled that Campos used his arm to control the pass.
The two sides ended the first half with seven shots apiece, but the second half was all RailHawks with the club outshooting the opposition 10-3.
Carolina's struggles in the first half were due in part to playing with a makeshift back four as holding midfielder Floyd Franks filled in for injured Devon McKenney at right back.
"It's tough when you've got a guy who isn't familiar with the back four. That's 25 percent of the backline that hasn't played together," said goalkeeper Brad Knighton, who kept a clean sheet for the second straight match and praised Franks's ability to step in.
"We have belief in every guy beside us."
Though Floyd performed admirably as a defender, his absence from the midfield meant the strikers weren't getting their usual service. When Cory Elenio came on for Matt Watson in the 69th minute, Floyd pushed back into the midfield and Elenio dropped into defense and the team surged forward, Elenio providing width and Franks keeping possession in the middle.
Rennie says his regular right back should be ready to go next Saturday when the club faces FC Tampa Bay on the road.
In that match, the RailHawks will look to push on from May, a month in which they won every game and outscored the opposition 14-4.
"The mood of the players will probably be that they feel they could do a little bit better than they did tonight," Rennie said. "That's what I like about these guys is they are never satisfied."
The club will travel to Canada to face FC Edmonton on June 10 before returning to WakeMed Soccer Park to battle Tampa Bay again on June 18.
You can view the match highights from Saturday's match here.