While a couple of other NASL clubs—rightly or wrongly—celebrated their Open Cup victories last Tuesday by selling the third-round home match rights to their MLS competitors for a proverbial 30 pieces of silver, what the RailHawks gave this Tuesday's crowd of 7,939, the largest in franchise history, was priceless.
The RailHawks converted two second-half goals in front of fans filling the newly erected and inspected North Stand, overcoming a halftime deficit to defeat the Galaxy 2-1 and advance to the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup.
The Galaxy side that flew to Cary came sans several starters, including Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane (international call-ups), David Beckham (fatigue/disinterest) and other regulars such as Juninho, A.J. DeLaGarza and Sean Franklin. Still, the remaining first/second-teamers and reservists who made the trip were still MLS caliber, both in name and skill. Their talent advantage showed during the opening stanza, when the Galaxy seemed to toy with the RailHawks. Whenever Carolina managed to retain possession, they often struggled to advance the ball across midfield—the RailHawks mustered a lone first-half shot attempt.
Meanwhile, the Galaxy lied in wait, ready for Carolina to make a mistake. That miscue came in the 38th minute when center back Austen King, who like his teammates appeared tentative and nervous during the first 45, made a silly giveaway along the right wing to midfielder Dan Keat. Keat calmly passed over to Chad Barrett, who made a direct run towards goal. As King raced back to make amends for his error, Barrett laid the ball off to an unmarked Pat Noonan, who slotted it past a diving Gale Agbossoumonde and goalkeeper Ray Burse for a 1-0 lead.
“We started off slow; I think we were a little nervous,” said Agbossoumonde. “But as the game went on we definitely got better. They really didn’t have any chances … the chances they had were off my mistake and other players’ mistakes.”
Despite the Galaxy’s apparent physical and technical aplomb, the first half forced the RailHawks to start playing proper football in order to stay in the game. No long balls, no excessive dribbling, no easy passes … Carolina had to embrace the sort of attractive soccer it often has the luxury to ignore during regular league play.
The first warning shot came in the 56th minute, when Brian Shriver crossed over to Austin Da Luz near the top of the box. Da Luz launched a left-footed volley that curled into the waiting mits of Galaxy keeper Bill Gaudette. While seemingly innocuous, the sequence not only gave Carolina its first shot on target but also demonstrated to the home side it could create chances against their top-division opponent.
The most pivotal moments of the contest started in the 64th minute. After having to burn one of their substitutions in the first half due to an injury to Hector Jimenez, the Galaxy used their last two changes in the 64th and 70th. Meanwhile, the RailHawks made their first substitution in the 66th minute when Ty Shipalane came on for Breiner Ortiz.
What was revealed over the ensuing 20 minutes was as surprising as the final outcome. While the Galaxy’s second-stringers and reserve players are skilled, they do not have regular match experience playing a full 90 minutes of competitive soccer, particularly on the road in front of packed houses (the Galaxy has only played three Reserve League games so far this year). On the other hand, the RailHawks facing them have been playing competitive matches for two months.
“Most people in [NASL] know what Ty can do,” said Shriver. “But when he goes at you one-on-one he’s lethal. He has ridiculous step overs and has absolutely no fear of going one-on-one against guys.”
“Every time you get a goal coming back from 1-0 it gives you the momentum and puts them back on their heels,” Shipalane said. “We kept pushing and pressing, and they didn’t know how to deal with us.”
Indeed, after Jason Garey entered the game in the 82nd minute, the latest fresh-legged RailHawk appeared poised to provide the home team the lead. In the 85th, Garey dispossessed a clearly fatigued David Lopes in the back field, giving Garey a one-on-one breakaway with Gaudette. Drawing out the keeper, the ex-MLS striker delivered a low roller that failed to curl around the right post, instead skipping harmlessly wide.
While an air of dejection and the inevitability of extra time enveloped the home supporters, RailHawks manager Colin Clarke remained optimistic.
“We were looking like the team that was going to score the next goal,” Clarke recounted. “We were on the front foot and getting at them with pace and strength.”
“Ty got the ball out wide,” Shriver recalled. “I knew as soon as he got it he was going at his man one-on-one … he came in and was tearing it up on his side. I made a run in the box, he hit a good cross and ended up being right on my head. I just tried to steer it goalward.”
The Galaxy’s last gasp came in the waning moments of full-time stoppage. A shot by Rafael Garcia deflected right to an unmarked Noonan, who struck a short angled shot that flew over the goal. Accompanied by the strains of the crowd chanting “Beat LA!,” the referee whistled full time and with it one of the biggest wins in RailHawks history.
This is the second time Clarke has coached a second-division club to an upset win over the LA Galaxy in tournament competition. In 2010, he led the Puerto Rico Islanders to victory over the Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“Before the second 45 minutes we had some words at halftime and they went out and were superb the second half,” Clarke said. “They believed in themselves and had confidence. It’s your opportunity to go out and show you can play at the next level against a good team. In the first 45 minutes you wasted that opportunity. The second 45 minutes they grasped that opportunity. I’m delighted for them.”
In the visitors' locker room, the stunned silence was deafening. A dejected and curt Bruce Arena claimed he wasn’t familiar with Shipalane or his style of play before the match and said Agbossoumonde, who bossed his attackers all night, was “OK” and “could develop into a good center back” with “a little more experience.”
“[The equalizer] came at a point in the game where we were a little fatigued,” Arena observed. “I think we had used all three of our changes at that point. They were more aggressive, obviously, the last 30 minutes of the game.”
“They’re an MLS team, but they weren’t coming off a good result [against Houston last Saturday],” said Shipalane. “So we took advantage of that because we knew they were a little bit down about that.”
But for now, the RailHawks will take a well-deserved moment to bask in the glory of an important win that set a record attendance, filled the club’s coffers, captured heightened media attention and will hopefully reboot their season.
“I think it’s a very, very special night,” said Clarke. “The Open Cup hasn’t been here for a couple years. We had MLS visiting here a month or so ago and got a great response from our fans then … Then I see the tickets that went on sale [for this game], seven or eight thousand of them, were sold out in three hours. That’s unbelievable. The fanbase is here, and nights like this are what it’s all about.”