So, why did an air of relief hover over the RailHawks’ 1-1 draw with the NASL table-topping Puerto Rico Islanders Saturday evening? In a word … hope. In a season without many, nay, any detectable positives, Carolina’s last two outings—including last week’s 2-1 loss at Minnesota—show an improving squad finally making necessary changes.
Four weeks after being drubbed by the Islanders in Puerto Rico, the RailHawks held the league's team scoring leader to less than two goals for only the third time this season and, interestingly, the first time on the road. Puerto Rico’s five shots were their second-lowest tally in eight games, and most importantly, it is the fewest surrendered in a game by the RailHawks this year. Indeed, Carolina outshot the Islanders 11-to-5.
Quite simply, the biggest change over the past two weeks has been the sturdy and stabilizing addition of Gale Agbossoumonde. Although still not fully match fit, the U.S. youth international is already showing why he was awarded Youth Male Athlete of the Year in 2010 by the U.S. Soccer Federation. He is a rare combination of size, strength and technical skill at center back, and he’s only 20 years old. Equally important, he is making the rest of the back line better, allowing Kupono Low, Cory Elenio and 22-year-old Austen King to focus on their play and position.
“I think [Gale] and Austen King will forge a very good partnership that will take us where we need to go this year,” says an ebullient Clarke. “I think they got better from last week, and [tonight] they played against one of the best offensive lines in this league.”
But in the end, you have to put the ball into the back of the net. While the RailHawks have proven as adept as any team in the NASL at creating chances, they only have two multi-goal games out of nine.
Continuing to make good on his promise of change from over two weeks ago, Clarke gave Austin Da Luz and Breiner Ortiz their first starts of the season. Da Luz has shown great pace and possession in limited playing time, and he scored the team’s lone goal at Minnesota last Saturday. The wiry Ortiz is a raw but crafty midfielder who likes to play the ball on the deck but is also able to track back and defend.
Da Luz was pleased to see his hard work in training and game finally rewarded..
“It’s been frustrating [not playing],” he said, “and if you don’t want to be on the field you’re not a real player. But I understand where the gaffer’s coming from and how he wanted to work me in a little slower. But now I’m on the field, and I have to perform like the rest of the guys.”
Carolina came out prepared and applying pressure to Puerto Rico’s defense. However, with the RailHawks unable to convert their chances, the door remained open for La Tropa Naranja (or Azul when sporting their road kits) to get on the scoreboard first, which they did in the 33rd minute. A foul gave the Islanders a short free kick along the end line that found Jay Needham standing far post, who casually headed the ball back across the face of goal to an unmarked Jonathan Faña in the goalmouth. Faña torsoed the ball through to give the visitors the lead.
As a feeling of “here we go again” crept over the 3,020 in attendance, the RailHawks continued to press forward. Brian Shriver got two shots on target in the first period, both of them blocked by Islanders goalkeeper Richard Martin.
That pressure persisted after halftime, and in the 49th minute Carolina found pay dirt. A low liner from Ortiz ricocheted off Zimmerman, who saved the ball from crossing the end line and popped a blind high volley back into the box. Standing just outside the right post. Shriver sized up the soaring sphere and one-touched it on the fly past Martin for an exquisite equalizer.
“That was a tough one, waiting for it to drop,” Shriver said about his fourth goal of the season. “It was high up there. I just tried to stay focused on it and make good contact.”
With Puerto Rico credited with only one shot the entire second half, the RailHawks attacked with abandon. Martin swatted away a Da Luz blast in the 51st minute. Martin also blocked a Zimmerman toe poke in the 80th. A header by second half sub Mike Palacio off a corner kick in the 81st minute bounded right of the goal.
“We deserved to win it, we deserved three points,” said Clarke. “I thought we played great and fell asleep on one occasion in the first half on something we talked about and went over. I’m feeling for them ... we deserved to win.”
“We dominated the game for long stretches tonight,” added Da Luz. “We’ve just got to find a way to grind these results out. We can play all the pretty soccer we want, but at the end of the day you have to be a team that can grind out results even when things aren’t going your way.”
The RailHawks (0-5-4, 5 points) return to league play on June 2 when they host a rematch with the Islanders. First, however, they will compete in the U.S. Open Cup for the first time since 2010. Carolina hosts PSA Elite of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association this Tuesday, and a win over the fifth division side will set up a match against the L.A. Galaxy at WakeMed Soccer Park on May 29.
It’s a series of games that could change the winless RailHawks’ public perception and fill their coffers. It could also jump-start the next phase of the team’s season.
“I think we’re a great team to watch,” Clarke observes. “Now we just need to win a game and put that behind us and go on that winning run we need to go on.”