by Neil Morris
With the RailHawks forecasting a near-sellout for tonight’s regular season finale against the NSC Minnesota Stars at WakeMed Soccer Park, it figures that the weather forecast is answering with precipitation.
Between these two soggy bookends to Carolina’s season, the RailHawks have clinched the NASL regular season crown, an unofficial title that nonetheless holds great import with aficionados of the sport for whom the regular season table is paramount and “the playoffs” are a foreign concept.
Nonetheless, they only pass out silverware in American D-2 soccer for playoff success, and the RailHawks’ journey starts in two weeks. Carolina’s first-place finish affords them a bye beyond next week’s quarterfinal round and into the two-leg semifinal that begin Oct. 8.
There is unfinished business, however. Tonight’s match with NSC Minnesota is one of two attracting interest from here to Canada. The Stars currently hold a one-point lead over the Montreal Impact for the sixth and final NASL playoff berth. A Stars win puts them in the playoffs; a draw or loss to Carolina shifts their fate to the result of tonight’s concurrent match between Montreal and the Atlanta Silverbacks, where an Impact win or draw places the Impact in the playoffs instead.
With the RailHawks’ regular season outcome sealed and logistically little left to play for, onlookers in Minnesota and Montreal have wondered on podcasts and sundry social media all week what sort of effort and starting XI the RailHawks might sport tonight.
This question was more relevant three weeks ago when the RailHawks were in the midst of a three-match winning streak and on the cusp of clinching the regular season. Since then, however, Carolina embarked on an anemic three-game road losing skid, all of them 1-0 losses during which the RailHawks failed to net a single goal and only mustered a combined 10 shots.
Carolina desperately wants, nay, needs to get off the schneid and back to their winning ways before the two-week layoff preceding their playoff entrée. That plus a boisterous capacity crowd tonight will motivate the RailHawks, even if a win might usher their pitched rival Montreal into the playoffs.
There is another subplot that is potentially far more significant to not only the result of tonight’s match but also the RailHawks’ playoffs aspirations. Carolina’s talisman Etienne Barbara, the NASL leader in goals, assists and points, is sitting on four accumulated yellows cards for the season. According NASL public relations director Kartik Krishnaiyer, Barbara will be suspended for the first-stage of the playoff semifinals if he picks up a yellow card tonight versus NSC Minnesota. After tonight, says Krishnaiyer, regular season bookings are wiped away and have no further bearing on playoff eligibility.
This leaves RailHawks manager Martin Rennie with a dicey decision. Without Barbara in the lineup, the RailHawks’ scoring threat drops precipitously. Look no further than the Sept. 7 loss at Fort Lauderdale, which Barbara missed due to a red-card suspension — the RailHawks’ offense was impotent, constantly ceding possession while only managing two shot (neither on target) for the entire match.
On the other hand, the risk of losing the potent but mercurial Barbara for even a single playoff match may be too risky for Rennie. A loss tonight will continue the RailHawks’ languid lull — losing Barbara for half of a two-leg playoff series could prove fatal to Carolina’s championship hopes.