Coming into Saturday evening’s match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the Carolina RailHawks had played to six draws this season (alongside the same devilish number of wins and losses). Two of the first three came on the road against Minnesota and Tampa Bay, each games in which the RailHawks were thoroughly outplayed yet managed to eke out a point—bittersweet results, but also causes for optimism. On May 19, a draw with the then league-leading Puerto Rico Islanders snapped a two-game losing streak for the RailHawks and served as the springboard into Carolina’s ballyhooed U.S. Open Cup run. And, when Carolina scored two goals in the final five minutes to tie the Fort Lauderdale Strikers 3-3 on July 7, the result sent RailHawks fans into happy hysterics.
On the other hand, when Carolina surrendered two-goal advantages—the most dangerous lead in soccer, as the saying goes—at home on April 14 against the lowly Atlanta Silverbacks and again on May 2 against Fort Lauderdale, the outcome felt more like a loss to players and partisans alike.
Unfortunately for the RailHawks, history repeated itself Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park. For the third time this year, Carolina gave up a two-goal lead at home. And this time, it was the visitors who netted two scores in the final five-plus minutes to draw 3-3 with the RailHawks.
The Rowdies entered the game sitting second in the league standings, winners of three straight matches and seven of their last eight. Indeed, the three most recent victories were all clean sheets, and Tampa Bay had not allowed an opposing goal since the 45th minute against the Minnesota Stars on July 12.
Meanwhile, the RailHawks were coming off an 8-0 shellacking from the San Antonio Scorpions last week. And, the effects of that pummeling appeared to carry over to the early stages against Tampa Bay. Sloppy, lethargic play led to an early Rowdies goal in the 17th minute. Luke Mulholland gathered a pass along the right wing and centered a cross into the box to an unmarked Shane Hill. With Cory Elenio and Sam Stockley elsewhere tending to other matters, Hill had time to gather the ball and calmly slot it past RailHawks goalkeeper Ray Burse.
Tampa Bay outshot Carolina 9-to-3 in the first half, many of those attempts on-target blasts that clanged off the woodwork or were saved by Burse. Meanwhile, all three RailHawks’ shots were taken by Nick Zimmerman, and fortunately for the home side one of them proved an equalizer. In the 43rd minute, Kupono Low played a ball off the left wing towards goal where it found the head of a leaping Zimmerman, who directed the sphere into the net and snapped the Rowdies’ defensive scoreless streak at 358 minutes.
A more confident RailHawks team exited intermission, and their renewed aggression plus a couple of fortuitous bounces gave Carolina a seemingly commanding lead. In the 48th minute, Austin Da Luz headed a loose ball over the Tampa defenders to a streaking, onside Jason Garey. The striker made a run for goal and, once he drew a couple of defenders, used the outside of his right foot to lay the ball off to an incoming Zimmerman. Zimmerman took two touches and slotted the ball across the face of Rowdies’ keeper Jeff Attinella for a 2-1 advantage.
“The ball got played into Jason over the top, and he looked up and basically it was all him,” said Zimmerman. “He split both of the defenders who were flying at him. He hit it to me, and I had nothing but space. If I miss that I should apologize right away.”
“I was walking and saw [the defenders] weren’t paying attention,” Garey recalls. “Mike did a really good job of running over and getting the ball real quick. I started screaming for it. He just threw it in and I went straight for goal.”
After the score, Tampa Bay manager Ricky Hill was apoplectic, sauntering onto the field in protest and getting sent off from the game in the process. Shane Hill—Ricky’s son, who left the game at halftime with an injury—said after the match that the Rowdies’ bench believed Palacio took his throw-in far ahead of where the ball sailed out of bounds. However, Carolina manager Colin Clarke said Ricky Hill was claiming that Swoops, the RailHawks’ mascot, was who actually made the throw-in to Garey.
Video replay of the incident shows two things. First, Palacio probably took the throw-in about 5-10 yards ahead of where the ball flew across the touchline, but that is well within the usual allowance for such matters. Second, Swoops was roosting nearby but definitely did not take the throw-in.
With no other coaches on the bench and their normal physio back in Florida attending to his pregnant wife, it fell to Shane Hill to play the role of manager. Shane’s first instinct was to rely on hand signals from his father positioned down the tunnel leading to the teams’ locker rooms.
“I was going to try to [do that] but they told me it wasn’t allowed,” Shane said with a laugh. “So, I just had to do it myself. I got a couple of substitutions in and out. I’ll take credit tonight.”
The Rowdies outshot Carolina 19-to-7 (including 12-to-4 on target) for the game. Still, despite being pelted with shots from all angles, the RailHawks held their lead thanks largely to yeoman’s work from Burse, who made eight terrific saves on the evening. However, Tampa Bay managed to pull within a goal in the 86th minute when Luke Mulholland outhustled Carolina’s defenders to a ball in the box and got a solid foot on it, sending a shot past Burse’s right ear into the netting.
With Carolina conceding corner and free kicks in bunches, the comeback appeared complete in the 90th minute when a Rowdies’ free kick off the right wing sailed across the goal but found the arm of midfielder Amir Lowery standing along the end line. The referee whistled handball and pointed to the spot. However, Burse again stood tall and, more importantly, his ground as penalty-taker Mike Ambersley anticipated a dive by the goalkeeper that didn’t occur. Burse swatted the PK away to seemingly save the win.
However, Tampa Bay wasn’t done. The ensuing corner kick resulted in a pointblank shot that was headed off the line and out of bounds by Ty Shipalane. With four minutes of full-time stoppage winding down, the Rowdies next corner found pay dirt when Takuya Yamada maneuvered around Floyd Franks and one-touched the ball into the net for the final equalizer.
“We weren’t marking,” muttered an exasperated Burse. “I think we got caught up in thinking the game was over, and obviously it wasn’t. They had two great opportunities. One Shipalane headed the ball off the line. And then to immediately concede after that is so frustrating…so frustrating.”
Carolina played without suspended starting center back Austen King, as well as pace-setter Brian Shriver. Notwithstanding an early miscue, Stockley played well in King’s stead. Still, it is disconcerting to lose a two-goal lead in the final five minutes with your keeper playing outstanding and a defensive-minded midfield of Lowery, Franks and second-half substitute Breiner Ortiz on the pitch.
Between the three comeback draws at WakeMed Park by Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and now Tampa Bay—all matches Carolina led by two goals—the RailHawks have squandered six points that would otherwise have them tied with Puerto Rico for third in the NASL table. Instead, the buzz-phrase after Saturday’s gut-punch was “learning to close out games.”
“I thought it was a good fight,” said Zimmerman. “Tampa Bay is second in the league. They haven’t given up a goal in I think  minutes. So to score three on them is good. But, we’ve got to find a way to close it out.”
“We’re not going to go real far until we figure out a way to close games,” added Garey.
As usual, Clarke was more direct.
“It’s nearly 20 games into the season. Some of the same things are still happening, and that’s not good,” he said. “From some of the same players, some from experienced players, as well. Individual errors, individual mistakes. Not wanting to stick your head in where it really hurts and where it really matters in front of your own goal. Not wanting to stick your foot in the middle of the park and win 50-50 balls.”
Clarke said last week’s thumping in San Antonio carried over to tonight, but only to a point.
“It’s one of those results that certainly opens your eyes,” he said. “It hurts your pride as much as anything, and then they had to come back from that tonight. And up to a point they did. It’s just a shame they didn’t finish it off. That’s where we are as a team right now. We need to get better as a defensive unit and as individuals defensively to have a real chance at winning the championship.”
With Carolina sitting sixth in the league table, securing a playoff spot is more imperative than looking ahead to a championship. Carolina is currently eight points clear of Edmonton and Atlanta for the final playoff berth. But, the RailHawks face the Eddies twice more this season, along with five matches against San Antonio, Tampa Bay and Puerto Rico, the top three teams in the league.
To make matters more disquieting, six of the RailHawks’ nine remaining regular season matches are on the road. While Carolina carries a record of five wins, five draws and only one loss with a plus-8 goal differential at WakeMed Park, their road tally is an abysmal 1-2-5 with a GD of minus-13. Overall, the RailHawks are third in the NASL in goals scored, but only Fort Lauderdale and last-place Atlanta have allowed more.
“We’re all going to have to buckle down and figure out what we can do individually to make us a better team when we step on the field,” said Burse. “Working harder in practice, working harder in games, working harder at home looking at teams who are upcoming opponents. We’re just all going to have to do something better because what we’re doing right now, it isn’t working.”
The RailHawks return to WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday, August 18 to face FC Edmonton.