by Neil Morris
But before visions of David Beckham could start dancing in their heads, the RailHawks had to accomplish something they haven’t all season: win a competitive soccer match. And for all the hoopla already surrounding next week’s production of “L.A. Galaxy Is Coming to Town,” Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup second round match against PSA Elite, played before 1,323 diehards, was the most important game in RailHawks history.
A win would not only advance Carolina in the Open Cup for the first time in two years, but it would give them a match in Cary against the flagship franchise of MLS with all the fan, media and financial incentives that come with it. A loss, on the other hand, would deny the winless RailHawks a home match against the Galaxy after being eliminated from the Open Cup by a fifth division amateur club. In other words, never in RailHawks franchise history have the consequences of winning or losing a single match been so wide and stark.
The RailHawks showed up for the occasion, however, dominating their overmatched guests from the West Coast on their way to an emphatic 6-0 victory. Brian Shriver netted four goals, including a first-half hat trick, becoming only the 25th player to earn a hat trick and the ninth player to score four goals in an Open Cup match in the Modern Pro Era, according to Josh Hakala of TheCup.us.
In truth, the RailHawks exorcised a season’s worth of demons, especially during a five-goal first half onslaught. Carolina manager Colin Clarke sent out his first-team squad with the exception of goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, who got his first competitive start as a RailHawk and his first match action since the February friendly against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
PSA Elite, on the other hand, is an amateur association club based in Irvine, Calif. whose roster comprises a collection of aging ex-professionals and college-age prospects. Two of PSA Elite’s starters against the RailHawks, Mikey Lopez and Jordan Gafa, were members of last year’s national champion UNC Men’s Soccer team. Lopez, who plans at this point to return to UNC for the 2012 fall season, was the 2011 ACC Freshman of the Year and currently a part of the U.S. under-20 national squad.
According to Lopez, he was playing for the Orange County Blue Star, a PDL club in Irvine, during the offseason when Gary Berry, head coach of PSA Elite, asked if he also wanted to help out their team in the Open Cup. Lopez debuted for PSA Elite in their 3-1 win over the Portland Timbers U-23 team last Tuesday.
However, any latent fears that the visitors would play the role of Grinch were allayed from the opening whistle. After a couple of warning shots, Carolina got on the board in the 7th minute. In what would quickly become a recurring sequence, Austin Da Luz played a through ball to Zack Schilawski, who laid it off for Shriver’s first goal. Two minutes later, a corner kick fell to Amir Lowery in the box. Lowery took a dribble to his right and uncorked a close-range blast into the upper netting.
In the 40th minute, a long cross from Cory Elenio found Schilawski far post. The Cary native again crossed the ball over to Shriver for his hat trick. A minute later, with the crowd still cheering and reporters still tweeting Shriver’s exploits, Ortiz intercepted a PSA Elite pass in the backfield and drove towards goal before laying the ball left to Schilawski, who one-touched a skimmer around the keeper that snuck inside the right post for a 5-0 halftime advantage.
The remainder of the game largely resembled a mismatched youth soccer game where the team in the lead has to pass the ball ten times before trying to score. At some point, PSA Elite managed six shot attempts, but only one was in the general direction of the goal. On the other side, the only time Carolina seriously attempted to score was after Jason Garey, goalless on the season, entered in the game in the 65th. With his teammates feeding and hoping to get him off the schneid, Garey took five shots, all in the box and four of them on target. However, ultimately the only RailHawk who benefited from his boots was Shriver, who gathered the rebound after Garey’s fifth attempt was blocked by PSA Elite goalkeeper Trevor Widdon during full-time stoppage and sheepishly deposited the gimme into an open goal.
Once this victory was in the books, Clarke and Carolina felt free to unwrap their Galactic present. Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane will be on international call-up and not take part in next week's game against the RailHawks. However, the Galaxy boasts a constellation of stars, including a certain English football superstar whose status for next Tuesday remains unknown.
“[The Galaxy] are probably having a similar sort of season as ourselves,” Clarke observes, “where they’re a good team playing well [but] not getting results and languishing near the foot of the Western Conference. But, they’re world class players.”
All six U.S.-based NASL teams won their respective Open Cup matches Tuesday evening. However, Carolina is the only one that does not have a league match this weekend, giving the RailHawks a full week to prepare for the Galaxy.
Shriver believes the time off will help the team’s fortunes.
“I believe [the weekend off] is definitely beneficial for us,” he says. “We’ve played two games in four days, so obviously the more time to rest and recover is huge for us, especially with the Galaxy coming here. MLS teams take the Open Cup pretty serious, like we are, so it’s going to be battle.”
What mustn’t be ignored amid all the MLS merriment is that although this was not a league game, the RailHawks finally got a much-needed win. When coupled with their palpable improved play over the past couple of games, Carolina hopes this recent run of play will jump-start their season.
But first, Clarke and the RailHawks can barely sleep in anticipation of the big day.
“We knew [tonight] was important; we knew this was big because of what lies ahead,” Clarke confessed. “Now everyone can get ready and welcome the Galaxy next Tuesday.”
And to all a good night...