by Neil Morris
Soccer also has a code, and Saturday night at WakeMed Soccer Park, 3,568 fans seemingly saw both its breach and the comeuppance for its transgression. The end result was the first league victory for the Carolina RailHawks, who defeated the NASL-leading Puerto Rico Islanders 2-1 despite Carolina playing a (significant) man down for over 50 minutes.
In the 37th minute of the scoreless match, the RailHawks’ Gale Agbossoumonde—who had already exchanged words earlier with the perpetually pesky Jonathan Faña—launched himself into a reckless, two-footed tackle from behind Faña along the left wing, well outside the box. Referee Jordan Shaw flashed a red card before the ball stopped rolling. Although Agbossoumonde protested after the game that the contact with Faña wasn’t as severe as first believed—a claim partly supported by video replay—he could not argue the fact that he left his feet heading into the tackle, making the official’s call one that even RailHawks manager Colin Clarke did not dispute after the match.
Still, with the ruby reprimand already out and Agbossoumonde already gone, Faña continued to writhe on the ground, screaming so severely that even skeptical RailHawk players began to take pity on their fallen opponent, believing (as apparently Faña was claiming) his leg was broken. RailHawks goalkeeper Ray Burse came out to console his former Puerto Rico teammate. The tragic tale took another turn when the stretcher was brought out to carry Faña off the field and into the tunnel leading to the trainers’ room, with several RailHawks wishing him well along the way.
Cause for suspicion—besides the fact that this was Jonathan Faña—soon arose when Joseph Marrero, who was already positioned at the scorer's table to come on for Faña, returned to the bench and put his green pinnie back on as Faña's MASH unit reached the tunnel. The fourth official appeared to ask Islanders’ manager Adrian Whitbread whether he intended to immediately sub for Faña. Pausing, Whitbread shook his head, choosing to play 10-v-10.
During an ensuing stop in play several minutes later for an (actual) injury to defender Jamie Cunningham, Whitbread sprinted inside the tunnel, and soon thereafter Faña sprinted out of it, apparently another success story of the healing properties of The Magic Spray™. RailHawks partisans booed in unison, and their players did not take long to express their displeasure more directly. At the next dead ball, team captain Kupono Low cast shoves and choice words at him, prompting a scuffle between the teams that ended with the six-foot two-inch Amir Lowery grasping the diminutive Faña by the shoulders and “gently” guiding him a full 20 yards away from the fracas while simultaneously lecturing him from a highly elevated position.
Then, as halftime of the still-scoreless game came, Faña exchanged indelicacies with Burse on their way off the field. The two had to be separated by players and Cary police, whose ubiquitousness on the RailHawks’ pitch over the years might qualify WakeMed Stadium as a high-crime area.
After the game, Burse was still seething … and pointed.
“I feel like at no time any player on the field should, one, fake an injury, and two, cry on the field,” said a vehement Burse. “This is a man’s game. He’s far from it, and it’s embarrassing to him and should be embarrassing to everyone on that team that he acted in the manner in which he did.
“He knows what he did, and all of us know what he did. And, revenge is good in the form of a victory.”
In truth, exaggerating injury to extract calls from a referee is an annoying but ingrained part of modern soccer. The difference here, it seems, was the extent of Faña’s deception. Few would have protested had Faña merely limped across the touchline only to return to the field at the next dead ball. However, the ruse of loudly claiming a fractured appendage coupled with being stretchered off, only to skip back onto the field minutes later, added insult to non-injury.
And that was just the feisty first half.
“They’ve got a couple of players that can get under your skin if you let them,” said Clarke. “And we did that tonight. But, after the red card I thought our players were great, had discipline and done the job in a professional manner and came out with what they deserved.”
The ruffled RailHawks were first to the pitch after halftime and, amazingly, the first on the scoreboard. In the 52nd minute, an Austin Da Luz free kick rattled around the box before ricocheting off Islanders’ defender Alexis Rivera and rolling across the goal line to give the home team a 1-0 lead.
The RailHawks relied on a makeshift three-man back line that included Lowery dropping to center back. However, surprisingly, Carolina never parked the bus, instead continuing to push forward into attack.
“I think if we sat back and tried to defend, we would have gotten beat,” Clarke said. “We’re about passing and moving the ball and getting after people, and we were able to do that.”
The strategy initially gave Carolina multiple chances to get a second goal. In the 62nd minute, Zack Schilawski and Brian Shriver exchanged passes before Schilawski’s on-target left-footer was punched over the goal by Islanders’ keeper Richard Martin. In the 67th, Schilawski played a through ball to Elenio, whose close-range blast rattled the crossbar without rippling the net.
However, the visitors applied their own pressure, and the RailHawks’ besieged back line broke in the 79th minute when a build-up allowed Faña to play the ball across the face of goal to Jay Needham for an easy equalizer.
With Carolina faltering, Puerto Rico pushed for the road victory. In the 83rd minute, a seemingly sure score was cleared off the line by Low with only millimeters to spare.
But then, fans who didn’t see Carolina’s win over the LA Galaxy last Tuesday got to experience their own edition of Shipalane magic. Again a second half sub, Ty Shipalane trained his sights on a long free kick by Burse out of the backfield. The ball bounced in front and over Needham, allowing Shipalane to dart around him, leap and chip the airborne orb over the outstretched fingertips of an out-rushing Martin. The ball stayed on-frame before it bounced once more into the open goal.
“The coach kept yelling my name, so I checked the sideline and he told me to stay behind because we had [Brian] Ackley [up top] and he’s tall and can win the ball,” Shipalane recalled. “So, I took a gamble and fortunately I was quicker [than the defender] and was able to get in between him and the goalie. And then I just lobbed the ball over his head.”
Shock gripped both the WakeMed crowd and the Islanders, who failed to muster another significant chance over three minutes of full-time stoppage.
It was another exciting entry in a long, tense rivalry.
“I’ve been here for three years, and every game against Puerto Rico has something special in it, including going back to that [league championship] final we had against them,” said Cory Elenio.
"There’s always good battles between Carolina and Puerto Rico,” added Clarke, who helmed the Islanders through five years of those battles before coming to Carolina this season. “There was before [coming to Carolina] and even more so now that I’m here—it probably adds a little bit of spice to it.”
The win gives the RailHawks their first win in league play and their third straight counting U.S. Open Cup competition. Carolina has not lost since Agbossoumonde returned from injury and cracked the starting lineup. His red card does not affect his eligibility for Tuesday’s Open Cup match against Chivas USA at WakeMed Stadium. However, pending league review, he will be suspended for at least the June 9 home match against the Minnesota Stars.
However, on this night, the rest of his teammates fought and won, despite being down their best defender and facing the top-scoring team in the league. Besides the win, perhaps the most amazing statistic is that the Railhawks outshot Puerto Rico 11-9 for the game.
“The team showed a lot of heart and character to come out on the right side against Puerto Rico, which is leading the league, and [playing] 10 men for 50 minutes,” Clarke said. “And we deserved it. It wasn’t a case of sneaking or stealing it. We deserved it. We were, to me, the better team with the ball, and we deserved the three points.”