by Neil Morris
Carolina would not notch its first league win for another four weeks. But in the meantime, it would earn an important draw against the league-leading Puerto Rico Islanders and, more significantly, defeat the LA Galaxy in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for one of the most memorable and exciting games in RailHawks’ club history.
Saturday evening before a crowd of 3,600 at WakeMed Soccer Park, the erstwhile low-flying ‘Hawks continued their phoenix-like rise from the ashes, winning the rematch with FC Edmonton by a score of 2-0. It was Carolina’s second straight clean sheet and, more importantly, its fourth consecutive league victory. The result elevates the recently cellar-dwelling RailHawks (4-5-4, 17 points) to the fifth position in the NASL standings, only six points behind current first-place Puerto Rico.
Carolina also played its second straight match without forward Brian Shriver, one of the team’s leading scorers, who suffered a slight, first-degree MCL sprain a couple of weeks ago during training, according to manager Colin Clarke. While the RailHawks have beaten Atlanta and now Edmonton in Shriver’s absence, they have exhibited a perceptible ebb in their attacking third against the bottom two teams in the league table.
Nevertheless, Carolina came out firing in the opening minute against the Eddies this go-around. Given space to penetrate the box off the left wing, Kupono Low let loose a rare shot on goal that sailed across the face of Eddies goalkeeper Lance Parker before careening off the base of the right post. Ty Shipalane, getting another start in place of Shriver, blasted the rebound from point-blank range, but Parker somehow dove in the way for a wonder save. Low then fired off another volley that was also blocked.
In the 23rd minute, Gale Agbossoumonde put his head to a corner kick from Austin Da Luz that Parker again saved. But with Carolina creating the most chances, the breakthrough finally came in the 34th minute thanks to a tremendous display of individual effort by Nick Zimmerman. Da Luz played a through ball ahead to Zimmerman along the left wing just outside the box. Knowing he was a step behind Edmonton's Paul Hamilton, Zimmerman executed a perfectly timed slide tackle to poke the ball towards goal and away from the defender’s momentum. Zimmerman instantly popped up and beat Hamiilton to the ball, took possession and drove hard along the endline before blasting a short-range shot that flew between the legs of a helpless Parker.
Although Zack Schilawski was also streaking towards goal from the opposite side, Zimmerman said he never considered a cross.
“I knew I was going to go to goal,” said Zimmerman. “I looked up and saw Zack trailing, so you hit the ball and [hope] something happens. You just put it on target and give it a chance, and fortunately enough it went in.”
Carolina struck again just four minutes later. After dispossessing an Edmonton player, Amir Lowery played the ball ahead to Schilawski, who drew the defense before laying the ball off to Breiner Ortiz. Ortiz put his left laces through a shot that went across Parker’s face before sneaking into the right netting for the Columbian midfielder’s first goal since joining the RailHawks.
“It was a very emotional moment for me,” the Spanish-speaking Ortiz said through a translator. “I have been looking forward the past two games, and today being such an important game against a rival fighting for a playoff spot, it was very important to come up with that goal.”
Indeed, Ortiz’s score is the culmination of an ascent into the RailHawks’ starting rotation that has been as important to Carolina’s rising fortunes as any other lineup change. Indeed, neither Ortiz nor Agbossoumonde played during the May 6 loss at Edmonton.
“I feel I’ve progressed a lot since I got here,” Ortiz continued. “The football in Colombia is very different from here. It’s a different speed; even in the training, there’s a much stronger training regimen here. But over the past few games, I feel like I’ve finally adapted well to the game and can handle the responsibilities on the field.”
Carolina outshot Edmonton 11-3 in the first half, and of seemingly minor interest, the RailHawks were whistled for six fouls in the opening stanza while the Eddies had none. However, the most tenacious star of this show would prove to be the weather. Fatigue quickly set in under a humid, 89-degree June canopy—even Swoops, the RailHawks’ avian-themed mascot, was spied in the trainer’s room after the game receiving treatment for leg cramps. As fuses became frayed for players and officials alike, play got chippier and referee Daniel Fitzgerald got card-happy.
By game’s end, the teams had been called for a combined 23 fouls. Moreover, the referee issued eight bookings, five of them to the RailHawks including two dubious yellow cards shown to Lowery in successive second-half minutes that sent off the stout midfielder and will suspend him from next Saturday’s match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Although Edmonton outshot Carolina 9-3 in the second half, only one remained on target. While Clarke was delighted with the 2-0 win, particularly Zimmerman’s performance, he expressed direct displeasure with his team’s post-halftime display.
“At halftime we talked about what we needed to do, and we didn’t do that in the second half and nearly let [Edmonton] into the game because of it.”
What didn’t his team do? Clarke continued.
“We didn’t pass the ball. We weren’t sharp enough. We lost our discipline a little bit. Never shifted, never moved, just weren’t good in the areas we needed to be good in. There’s some stuff that went on in the second half that we need to learn from that’s going to help us further down the road.”
Beyond Shriver’s injury, Cory Elenio pulled a hamstring during his pregame warm-up that forced him to leave the game at halftime. Those knocks, along with Lowery’s impending suspension, could figure into roster selection as the RailHawks play their next three games during a one-week span, including a home-and-away set with the Strikers over successive Saturdays sandwiching an Independence Day Eve match against the Atlanta Silverbacks in Cary.
The interim fireworks will come from Clarke, who clearly will not allow his squad to rest on their nascent laurels.
“Winning games breeds confidence,” Clarke said. “But, now we need to sit back and refocus ourselves and not get complacent. We need to continue to earn the right to play and the right to win games.”