by Neil Morris
In between, the Carolina RailHawks returned to their recent winning form, defeating the Atlanta Silverbacks 2-1 and spoiling the debut of interim Silverbacks manager Eric Wynalda. A brace by Nick Zimmerman, both goals coming five minutes into each half, was the difference-maker in a game that Carolina dominated for long stretches yet scrambled late to avoid what would have been a disappointing draw.
Thankfully, the match also avoided the truncated fate of the RailHawks’ last two home games against Atlanta. On April 14, this season’s home opener was halted in stoppage time after the fourth official was pushed to the ground during a touchline altercation. And last July, Carolina earned a weather-shortened victory when the match was abandoned in the 50th minute after three lightning delays.
Playing their second game over a week’s span, the RailHawks again tweaked their usual lineup. Amir Lowery returned from a one-game red card suspension that saw him miss last Saturday’s loss at Fort Lauderdale. Brian Shriver also returned from an injury that saw him miss three games. Ty Shipalane and Mike Palacio again cracked the starting XI, this time in place of Breiner Ortiz and an injured Austin Da Luz. And Jason Garey gave it a geux, celebrating the publication of his first novel with his first league start since April 28.
It only took the RailHawks and head coach Colin Clarke four minutes to welcome Wynalda to the league. An Atlanta miscue gave Garey possession along the left wing. Like a benevolent oil driller finding pay dirt, Garey drove toward the top of the box before laying off a perfectly timed ball to the streaking Zimmerman. Two touches later, Zimmerman slotted his shot past Silverbacks’ goalkeeper Daniel Illyes for the early lead.
“[Garey] held off the defender well, found me and I happened to be running through,” said Zimmerman. “I had some open space and was fortunate enough to find the back of the net.”
Carolina appeared to rest of their laurels after the quick start, however, and Atlanta applied their own pressure that paid off in the 15th minute. Borfor Carr centered a ball off the right wing that dissected the RailHawks’ defense before finding the foot of striker Matt Horth, who one-touched the ball past Ray Burse for the equalizer.
With the RailHawks locked in languid, long-ball mode, lightning literally struck at the 22:24 mark, leading to the first 78-minute delay. Fans took shelter, Wynalda paid a visit to the press box and RailHawks President Curt Johnson consulted local weathermen via cell phone. When play finally resumed, it lasted only three minutes before another storm cell sprouted overhead, again illuminating the night sky and dumping more rain on WakeMed Park’s impervious pitch.
Just over a half-hour later, the storm clouds cleared for good, although many of the fans who stayed through the first delay abandoned ship during the second go-around. The hearty ‘Hawks supporters who remained saw a more energized Carolina squad retake the field. Yeoman’s work by Illyes thwarted promising chances for the RailHawks during the latter stages of the first half to maintain the tie. This also included a point-blank blast by Shriver in the 39th minute that was somehow cleared away by defender Martyn Lancaster.
In the 50th minute, however, Carolina finally breached the dike. Cory Elenio played a pinpoint cross off the right that found an unmarked Zimmerman in the goalmouth. All that remained was for the midfielder to stiffen his neck and head the ball into the open net for his ninth league goal, currently tops in the NASL.
“Cory just put it on my head,” Zimmerman recalls. “It’s a really easy finish from there. Cory did all the hard work. It was a great ball, and I would’ve felt pretty bad it I had missed it.”
Indeed, Zimmerman’s recent run of play is the sort that could put him back on the MLS radar. Clarke says that’s the mark of a player comfortable with his role and abilities.
“He’s scoring goals, enjoying himself, having fun,” said Clarke. “It’s a fun team to play on when we’re playing well.”
Unlike the first half, Carolina continued to bring pressure after retaking the lead. A free kick into the box in the 79th minute found second-half sub Ortiz in front of goal, but his one-touch was deflected away by Illyes, one of seven big saves for the keeper on the night. The RailHawks outshot Atlanta 10-to-3 (including 5-to-1 on-goal) in the second half, part of a 21-to-8 margin for the game.
“We started great and once we scored we stopped,” Clarke recounted. “Credit to them, they sort of took the game to us. I thought they passed and moved pretty well and caused us some problems. The first [delay] came just at the right time for us to get refocused. But once we got into the second half, it was probably the most lopsided 45 minutes of soccer I’ve seen. But we didn’t put them away, and you see what happens at the end. There’s a scramble and you just never know.”
Wynalda, who only joined the team on Monday, said he largely used the game to assess the available talent. He made two halftime substitutions in order to take an extended gander at as many players as possible. After the game, with fireworks blasting in the background, Wynalda kept the result in perspective.
“Disappointed in the loss, but I thought the effort at times was pretty good,” he said. “There was some real quality on their side—that was the difference tonight—especially up top. All credit to them.
“It was rough night for everybody with the weather. We kept [having] to go in. This is the most I’ve ever talked to Colin, I think. We got the chance to catch up, which was nice.”
Clarke reciprocated Wynalda’s salutation, in jocular fashion.
“I’m just glad I beat him or I’d have never heard the end of it,” Clarke said. “He only just got here. I’m sure he’ll improve that team and make them better. Hopefully, he’ll enjoy it. He’s always got opinions about something. Now he’s got to put his opinions on the line, so to speak, rather than talk about other people. So, it’ll be fun to watch.”
The RailHawks return to play this Saturday when they host the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, hoping to avenge last weekend’s loss. The club will again put on post-game fireworks for the fans; let’s hope the atmospheric eruptions remain confined to the man-made variety.