In truth, it was a significant victory for the RailHawks (6-6-5, 24 pts.), who for the second time in just over a month defeated the Stars, the defending NASL champs. The victory preserves Carolina’s playoff position and fifth place in the NASL table.
The extent of the scoring occurred in the 10th minute. The ever-improving Breiner Oritz played a deft ball out to Mike Palacio on the right wing. Palacio delivered a textbook cross into the box to Zack Schilawski for the easy putaway past Stars’ keeper Matt VanOekel. It was a build-up and completion that RailHawks manager Colin Clarke called “probably the best goal we’ve scored this year.”
The RailHawks held onto the lead heading into halftime despite a number of mental mistakes that gave the Stars scoring chances. The chief highlight, however, was a quick free kick the RailHawks took just outside the box after a Stars foul during first-half stoppage time that ended with an apparent score by Ty Shipalane, who entered the game in the 34th minute for an injured Brian Shriver. However, referee Daniel Radford waved off the goal.
A quick check of the Doppler radar—and The Book of Exodus—during intermission showed the imminent approach of severe thunderstorms and sundry other plagues. While their arrival was stayed long enough for the second half to begin, the initial nearby lightning strike stopped play at the 47:24 mark.
Those who remained over the ensuing four-hour weather delay busied themselves with food, movies and increasingly punchy conversation. Over barbeque and baked beans in one of the hospitality suites, Clarke and I compared the quality of area golf courses. Several members of the press—and the RailHawks players, we later learned—took in the bulk of The Dark Knight, which was being broadcast on TV with commercials but still finished before the delay was over.
The amount of rainfall during the delay was steady but relatively minimal. However, the unending lightning strikes reset the clock for a possible restart at 30 minutes after each flicker. However, Minnesota manager Manny Lagos refused all invitations to abandon play, which would have awarded the RailHawks the win since they led and second-half play had begun. Indeed, last year Carolina won a weather-shortened game against Atlanta that was mutually abandoned after being stopped four times because of weather. Considering that soccer matches, unlike baseball, continue play through rain alone, such scenarios are becoming frustratingly regular at RailHawks’ games during the spring and summer months: this was the second lightning delay this season, and three matches last year were stopped for lengthy periods due to weather.
According to RailHawks president Curt Johnson, any decision to abandon a match must be with the joint consent of both managers and the referee. The NASL office, which was in constant contact throughout last night’s delay, presumably could have asserted itself and forced an abandonment, but it was reticent to do so at the expense of one team over another.
It’s difficult to blame Minnesota for not foregoing any chance at salvaging a draw or even a win that would have vaulted them into third place in the league standings. But, it’s bizarre that the league leaves such decisions in the hands of interested team and not a disinterested party, most logically the referee.
“It was Manny’s decision because they were losing and losing three points,” said Clarke after the match. “But, I think somewhere down the line common sense needs to prevail and the league needs to have a cutoff point. Yeah, we can wait here all night, but it’s not healthy for players. It’s one o’clock in the morning; you don’t play soccer games at one o’clock in the morning .... It’s just ridiculous that no one’s got the balls to actually put something in the rules that says after four hours that’s it, we can’t wait anymore. It doesn’t make sense for players.”
Should it be the referee’s decision?
“I still think the league needs to give them the guidelines to make that decision,” Clarke continued. “This game should have been called off about 11 o’clock. At 11 o’clock it was still lightning, [so] the earliest we were going to get done was about around 12:15, and that’s too much.”
Around midnight, with rain still steadily falling but the lightning gone, the players finally emerged from the catacombs beneath WakeMed Stadium and began to warm up before a smattering of team officials, press and 40-50 stalwart supporters.
The final 43 minutes were a nocturnal blur, memorable less for the quality of play than the now-audible tempestuousness on the field. That included referee Radford, who after one benign complaint from Lagos could be heard yelling for the Stars’ manager to “Stop, that’s enough … I’m not in the mood right now.”
“I think the ref misunderstood what [Low] was saying and thought he was talking to him when he was saying something to Ray [Burse, the RailHawks’ goalkeeper] and sent him off,” said Amir Lowery. “That’s how it goes in this league, I guess—random mistakes that cost you by referees.”
Clarke was even less reticent.
“I don’t know what the referee was doing in the second half after the break,” Clarke said. “I think it affected him more than anybody. I thought he was awful, absolutely awful for the [last] 43 minutes ... Some of the decisions he was making were just weird.”
With his team playing a man down for the final 13 minutes, Clarke fortified his defense to preserve the slim lead. Jamie Finch made his RailHawks debut at left back in place of Low, while midfielder Floyd Franks made his return to WakeMed Park over the waning minutes.
“[After] the red card happens, we had to show some character, guts, heart, whatever you want to call it in the last 15 minutes, which we did,” said Clarke. “We deserved to win.”
Today, the RailHawks’ front office announced that fans who purchased tickets to last night’s game may redeem them for a buy one, get one free ticket offer for Carolina’s next home game on August 4 against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
While the RailHawks seek to make amends for Mother Nature’s transgressions, their players—who visit the league-leading San Antonio Scorpions next Saturday—just want to rest.
“It was an interesting one,” sighed Lowery. “The stoppage, obviously. Everyone’s hungry, pissed off, feeling like the game should have been called already, but it is what it is.”