by Neil Morris
Yesterday evening, the RailHawks fared far better at the comparatively cosy confines of NSC Stadium in Blaine, Minn. Carolina was more effective in possession, attack and defense … and lost the rematch 2-1 to remain winless for the 2012 season.
After squandering a couple of early opportunities, the Stars got on the board in the 17th minute when Kentaro Takada played a ball through Carolina defenders Austen King and Kupono Low to a streaking Amani Walker. Walker reached the ball before a slow-responding Ray Burse and rounded the RailHawks keeper for an open goal.
Somewhat surprisingly, Minnesota’s start seemed to spark the RailHawks dormant offense. Carolina began penetrating the Stars’ defense regularly for the rest of the match. However, the relatively few times RailHawks attackers were able to pull the trigger on shots, Stars goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel stymied their chances. Both Nick Zimmerman and Brian Shriver saw attempts thwarted in the 18th minute, and the same fate befell Zack Schilawski in the 23rd. In the 44th minute, Chris Nurse and Ty Shipalane, receiving his first start of the season, each launched blasts that failed to find their intended target.
With Carolina still on the attack, however, Stars midfielder Kevin Venegas cut loose a right-footed curler from the left wing in the 52nd minute that froze Burse where he stood before slipping into the postage stamp, giving Minnesota a 2-0 advantage.
Hard luck gripped Carolina throughout. In the 71st minute, the RailHawks saw three chances in the box go for naught, including a leg save by Van Oekel of another Zimmerman effort. Another boot on ball by second half sub Brian Ackley in the 84th minute off a pinpoint cross from also-second half sub Austin Da Luz was also swallowed by the Stars' keeper.
Carolina managed a consolation prize during full-time stoppage when Da Luz gathered a cross from Low and poked it past Van Oekel to account for the final tally.
It’s hard to assign moral victories when a team is winless through the opening eight games of their season, so I won’t try. Indeed, going back to last year, the RailHawks have not won a regular season match since beating FC Tampa on September 3, 2011, a current span of 12 games. Saturday in Minnesota, Carolina played well enough to win a road match from which they ultimately couldn’t even draw a point. They extended their league-worst goals allowed tally to 17. And, for good measure, their next two games are against the table-topping Puerto Rico Islanders, who defeated Carolina by a score of 3-1 three weeks ago.
All that said, Carolina played some of their proficient soccer for large segments of the Minnesota match. Born of necessity and perhaps injuries, RailHawks manager Colin Clarke made good on a May 2 promise to make changes to his lineup. Absent from both the starting XI and available subs was Mike Palacio, Jason Garey and John Krause. In their places were Shipalane, Schilawski (again) and, most notably, defender Gale Agbossoumonde.
Agbossoumonde, coming off prolonged recovery from a turf toe condition, made his opening bow as a RailHawk and his first competitive club action since last October. The 20-year-old was impressive in his debut, serving as a towering but technically adept presence along the back line. His 6-foot-2-inch frame repelled long balls all evening, his surprising speed enable him to track back and cover opposition attacks and he cleared balls from the box both bilaterally and with aim. His inclusion was clearly welcomed by the rest of the defenders, including Low, who played his best game in, well, as long as I can remember, and King, who was coming off his own knee knock.
Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a winning team isn’t conjured from a couple of lineup changes. Clarke still speaks glowingly of King, but the rookie defender continues to struggle with man marking and consistent clearances. Lowery and Nurse are both strong holding midfielders, but neither dribbling nor distribution are their strong suits (particularly Nurse, who struggled with his passing against Minnesota). Playing them together deprives Carolina of a deep-lying playmaker in the middle of the pitch it so sorely needs.
The most difficult call, however, is reserved for Burse, a smart, talented and accomplished goalkeeper who leads the league in saves (a feat easier to attain when opponents have fired 106 shots your general direction). However, Burse has clearly struggled to gel with whatever back line placed in front of him. Moreover, he was blinkered while surrendering stunning but stoppable long shots during the last three matches against Fort Lauderdale, Edmonton and now Minnesota.
Reserve keeper Akira Fitzgerald does not possess Burse’s height or experience. However, the last time we saw the former Wake Forest standout he was making five spectacular saves and stopping a Long Tan penalty kick during the RailHawks’ shootout win over the Vancouver Whitecaps in a friendly two months ago.
Clarke acknowledged Shipalane’s contributions off the bench this season by giving him the start against Minnesota. The same attention should be paid to Da Luz, who finally saw extended playing time (22 minutes) against the Stars and reciprocated with terrific ball-handling, passing and a goal for good measure.
Still, things may continue to get worse for the RailHawks before they get better with twin home matches against the Islanders on May 19 and June 2, followed by a visit from the Stars on June 9. Interspersed will be Carolina’s entry into U.S. Open Cup competition, which kicks off on Tuesday, May 22 against either the Portland Timbers U-23s (PDL) or PSA Elite (USASA).
In sum, Carolina will play at least their next four games at WakeMed Soccer Park. What remains unknown is whether the road to Cary will prove an Appian Way for the fortified RailHawks or Easy Street for their opposition.