by Neil Morris
Locally, it’s become the mantra for the resurgent Carolina RailHawks, whose turnaround from winless cellar-dwellers to victors of three of their last four games—including a shorthanded win over the NASL-leading Puerto Rico Islanders and a US Open Cup defeat of the LA Galaxy—coincided with two revelations. First was the emergence of center-half Gale Agbossoumonde to buoy the back line. Moreover, as important was the RailHawks’ recognizing and embracing their team identity as a collection of potentially potent attackers, so deep in the front third that productive D2 talent like Mike Palacio, Jason Garey and super sub Ty Shipalane haven’t cracked the starting XI since early May.
That attacking strategy continued Saturday evening at WakeMed Soccer Park as the RailHawks (2-5-4, 11 points) ended a six-game home stand by defeating the Minnesota Stars 5-1, handing the Stars their first league loss this season.
Despite Carolina’s recent spate of positive results, they were facing an opponent that has had their number. The RailHawks had not defeated Minnesota in regular season league play since April 26, 2009, back when Minnesota was named the Thunder, a span of nine games. And Carolina was playing without Agbossoumonde, who was serving a one-game red card suspension for a reckless tackle during last Saturday’s win over Puerto Rico.
On the other hand, the Stars were on the tail end of a brutal seven-game road odyssey through league and US Open Cup play that included trips to Tampa Bay, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Jose and North Carolina over the last two weeks alone. Head coach Manny Lagos was serving his own red card suspension, watching the game from outside one of WakeMed Stadium’s hospitality suites. And, the team was without three key players: defender Kevin Friedland, midfielder Lucas Rodriguez and, most significantly, leading scorer Amani Walker.
Play began with a tentative, sloppy RailHawks squad constantly ceding possession to the visitors. However, the Stars found difficulty with their finishing, a problem that would plague them all match. Meanwhile, after midfielder Austin Da Luz pushed a sitter wide in the 23rd minute, the ensuing corner kick led to Carolina’s opening score. The corner was cleared out to Da Luz, who returned a pinpoint volley to the far post, finding a leaping Austen King for the putaway header.
“A corner kick went in and bounced back out,” King said. “I stayed in the mix, the ball was played back in and I was in the right place at the right time.”
On of the Stars’ few shots on target came in the 29th, when Miguel Ibarra delivered a short-range blast that was deflected away by diving RailHawks keeper Ray Burse. In the 41st minute, Carolina notched their second goal when Nick Zimmerman launched a liner from 20 yards out that ricocheted off the leg of teammate Zack Schilawski, causing the ball to squib around goalkeeper Matt VanOekel and roll just inside the right post.
Still, twice before this season the RailHawks amassed a two-goal lead—often called the most dangerous lead in soccer—at home only to surrender them for draws against Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale. And just prior to halftime, history seemed to be repeating itself. Off an innocent cross in the 45th minute, Carolina’s defense failed to properly clear away the danger, allowing striker Simone Bracalello to out-hustle center-back John Krause for the ball before snapping a shot into the netting to make the score 2-1 entering intermission.
King said the team appreciated the sense of deja vu.
“It was one of those feelings,” he said. “Dewan [Bader, RailHawks’ assistant coach] reminded us at halftime about those two games where we’ve given up two-goal leads. But, we felt like we were going to have to get over that hump.”
“Going into halftime we conceded that late goal,” added midfielder Amir Lowery, “and I think we all made a point to say we weren’t going to make the same mistakes we made in previous home games.”
The RailHawks’ plan was not one of containment, but one of attack. To paraphrase head coach Colin Clarke after a recent game, “It’s who we are.”
In the 53rd minute, Zimmerman intercepted a Stars pass in the backfield and fed a wide open Schilawski near goal, whose shot clanged off the crossbar. The recoil found leading scorer Brian Shriver, who clinically deposited the sitter past VanOekel for Carolina’s third score.
Against a gradually fatiguing Stars back line, Carolina began to find more open spaces and passing lanes. In the 61st minute, Breiner Ortiz played a through ball into the box to Schilawski, who maneuvered around VanOekel and converted an angled shot for Schilawski’s first league goal this year.
After a swath of substitutions, the final margin came during the waning moments of full-time stoppage when Shipalane delivered a free kick towards goal that found the head of Jason Garey, who creased the cotton for his first goal as a RailHawk.
Minnesota’s 14 total shots were the most allowed in a game by the RailHawks since the third game of the season against the Tampa Bay Rowdies back on April 18. But besides surrendering five goals—the most in any game this year—the Stars managed only three shots on target, all in the first half.
Clarke said the Stars' weariness was understandable.
“I think when you’re chasing the ball around for long periods like they were on a hot and humid night, I think it begins to tire on you,” he said.”
“Oh yeah...for sure,” Lowery admitted. “Them being unbeaten this season and us not having beaten them were definitely motivating factors. We wanted to make a statement, which I think we did.”
The game was played before a season-low crowd of 2,580. While the RailHawks drew over 18,000 patrons through the turnstiles over the last 12 days for games against the Galaxy, Islanders and Chivas USA, tonight’s turnout showed signs of market fatigue. While tickets for certain MLS opponents can sometimes sell themselves, the logistics for the front office are still daunting, leaving less time to marshal resources and advertise a fourth game in two weeks. In addition, this a big vacation weekend for area families as public schools operating on a traditional calendar let out for summer break this week.
Still, just a few miles away the Durham Bulls drew roughly 9,000 people for the third straight night. Weighing the popular appeal of baseball and soccer or the brand strength of the Bulls versus the RailHawks is an obvious and largely diversionary discussion. What’s universally true, however, is that job of marketing a local sports team, particularly lower division soccer, is an unending process. Saturday’s attendance exceeds the per game average in 2010 and is only 400 less than 2009’s average. However, the bar was raised last year and expectations have ballooned this season, thanks mainly to the robust crowds gracing WakeMed Soccer Park as recently as four days ago.
Before ink is spilled—or megabytes are used—pontificating whether the Triangle is ready for Major League Soccer, it must first demonstrate its desire to support the team it has. The diehards were out Saturday night, and Clarke literally applauded the supporters in The 309 Depot after the match while also wondering to the media where all the people went.
“The fans ought to come out and watch them,” Clarke remarked without prompting, “because they have some great young players here that are playing very well together, making unselfish runs for each other and doing all the things they need to do. It’s fun to watch, and I know they’re having fun right now.”
They can’t all be sellouts, but the RailHawks play merely eight of their remaining 17 regular season games in Cary. One positive quirk to those 17 games is that only two of them are against Puerto Rico and Minnesota, the top teams in the NASL going into Saturday's competition. Carolina visits Atlanta to face the last-place Silverbacks next Saturday before returning to WakeMed Park on Saturday, June 23 to host FC Edmonton.
In the meantime, King says the team has adopted another slogan.
“Respect everybody, fear none,” he intones. “We’ve gotten on a little bit of a run. Playing in the US Open Cup against the Galaxy and Chivas gave us a little bit of confidence, and beating the top two teams in the league is a big statement … we’re coming.”