by Joe Schwartz
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Playing for the first time at WakeMed Soccer Park since manager Martin Rennie was tapped to lead the MLS's Vancouver Whitecaps in 2012, Carolina RailHawks offered fans a pre-game parking lot feast at the annual Taste of the Triangle and a 1-1 draw with the NSC Minnesota Stars that was hard to digest.
The result snapped a nine-match home winning streak for the table-topping Cary club (14-3-4). It also means that after three attempts, the RailHawks still lack a victory this term against Manny Lagos' well-organized, fourth-place Minnesota squad (7-8-6).
RailHawks striker Pablo Campos saw his ninth goal of the season, a neatly tucked away 48th-minute shot that slid through goalkeeper Joe Warren's legs, cancelled out just seven minutes later from a deft side-netting finish from Lucas Rodriguez.
Rodriguez used his purple boots to draw the match level in the 55th minute. He was put in from a sweet, scooped ball from Simone Bracalello over the heads of a stranded Carolina back four that he ran onto and parlayed into an angled, expert equalizer.
"There was a free runner coming across the back, probably a little bit of miscommunication there," said new signing Tony McManus, who deputized at right back in his home debut and second match with the side.
"It was a good goal, you can't really say much about it, but it's something that we should never give up."
McManus, who came to Carolina expecting to be a role player after an unceremonious end to his career with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, has made the starting XI twice now as midfielder Floyd Franks rehabs a hamstring injury for two weeks and defender Devon McKenney suffers with a knock to his ankle.
Frustratingly, the RailHawks also let a second half lead evaporate to Minnesota after seven minutes in an April 30 contest in at the National Sports Center. On that night Etienne Barbara's penalty conversion was equaled by a strike from Bracelelo.
In the July 9 match, also up north, Minnesota's Amani Walker snatched the winner in stoppage time with the game's lone goal.
"We've had chances to win all of those games; We've missed penalties, we've had good opportunities to score and not taken them, we've given away bad goals at bad moments," Rennie said.
"I feel like we've played fine against them, and we've done enough to win in the games that we've played, but we just haven't managed to so far."
This match got off to an auspicous start when in the 2nd minute Bracalello rounded McManus on the left flank and cut back a ball for Devin Del Do, who beat goalkeeper Brad Knighton but had his shot cleared from the line by captain Kupono Low.
RailHawks responded with two surging counterattacks in the 17th and 22nd minutes but talismanic striker Etienne Barbara couldn't beat the formidable Joe Warren in goal. Fans erroneously celebrated in the 31st minute after Carolina combined in the box from a Jonny Steele cross, a Pablo Campos header and a Nick Zimmerman poke shot that deceivingly stuck into the outside netting.
Zimmerman was denied again in the 43rd minute when Steele latched on to a long ball from Matt Watson at the byline and teased in a ball that found Zimmerman's forehead and then Warren's grateful arms.
The RailHawks had three chances to grab the winner in the second half, in the 63rd minute as Campos put Steele in from a backheel that Steele wasted with an attempted chip shot, in the 75th when Barbara's first touch let him down but left Warren stranded and his shot was blocked at the goalline by the Minnesota defense and in the 86th as goalkeeper Brad Knighton found Barbara on a punt but no one was there to connect with a dangerous ball played through the penalty box.
Minnesota came closest in the 88th minute as Bracalello's left footed strike caromed off of Knighton's post.
The result means Rennie avoided his first three-match losing streak in three years at the helm.
A stoic Steele, who notched his seventh assist on Campos's goal, was unimpressed by his side's performance.
"Minnesota are a hard-working team, but the players we've got should be breaking them down and we never did it," he said. "We're going through a little downer right now, but we've got to pick it up"
The RailHawks's flying start has been tapered in a three-game stretch of two losses and this draw, reducing the team's 12-point cushion atop the standings to seven points. After pummeling the competition in the season's early chapters, the club finds itself in a precarious position, hoping to maintain form, prevent injury and remain motivated in an eight-team league where the trophy only comes from winning a six-team, postseason tournament.
"We had enough chances to win the game, and we didn't take them. Earlier in the season we were taking those chances, and we were winning the game and also maybe we were defending maybe just a little bit better,"said Rennie, who hopes to add one more player to the squad before the transfer window closes Sept. 9.
"I was disappointed with the goal we lost tonight, but, look, if someone said to me at the beginning of the season with seven games to go you'll be seven points clear at the top of the league with a good goals for a good goals against, one of the best for in the country one of the least against in the country, I would have been really happy with that," Rennie said.
"The bottom line is for us to win the league title, to win the champioship, we have to get much better toward the end of the season and there's definitely a lot of room to do that."
That starts Saturday when the Ft Lauderdale Strikers, unbeaten in four on the trot including a 2-1 victory in the reverse fixture earlier this month, come to town for the first of only three remaining regular season home matches for the RailHawks.
The squad will get another crack at Minnesota in Cary on Sept. 24 in the regular season finale.