File photo by Joannah Irvin
Austin da Luz of the Carolina RailHawks
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—With two games left in the Carolina RailHawks’ 2013 campaign, there was only one NASL opponent they had not defeated this year: the Atlanta Silverbacks. In their three previous matchups, Carolina had lost once and tied twice. But the June 29 draw is undoubtedly the most impactful and memorable outcome. Carolina’s failure to get a win over Atlanta that night in Cary kept the RailHawks from clinching the league’s spring title. That missed opportunity became a full-blown collapse five days later when Carolina’s loss in San Antonio, coupled with Atlanta’s win in Minnesota, handed the spring crown to the Silverbacks.
On Nov. 9, the Silverbacks host the New York Cosmos in the NASL Soccer Bowl to determine the league’s 2013 champion. A weekend of festivities surrounds the event, from VIP parties to a year-end awards ceremony. League brass, club officials and a sellout crowd will attend the match, which will be broadcast by ESPN3 and ESPN Deportes.
Meanwhile, because the RailHawks didn’t score one extra goal on June 29, WakeMed Soccer Park will remain dark on Nov. 9.
So, when the Silverbacks came to Cary Saturday night for their final meeting this year, the RailHawks were playing with other goals in mind: pride, preserving the team’s 2013 unbeaten home record, and finishing with the most overall points in the league over the entire year. Some players were undoubtedly casting an eye toward roster spots for next season.
But mostly, the RailHawks were looking to get that pesky Silverback off their back. Which they did, dominating Atlanta by a score of 4-0 in front of 4,189 faithful.
“Great performance, it’s what we can do,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “I thought they played great, there were a lot of great performances.”
The parking lot for WakeMed Soccer Park was overflowing Saturday, but that was mainly due to its annual use as a park-and-ride location for the N.C. State Fair. Consequentially, traffic on the two-lane leading into the facility was congested, and many late-arriving fans streaming in throughout the first half missed the RailHawks first goal in the 10th minute. Off a Carolina corner, Zack Schilawski headed the service from the far post across the face of goal. There, defender Henry Kalungi, making his third start since arriving on loan from the Richmond Kickers, delivered a diving header deflection past Atlanta goalkeeper Joe Nasco for a 1-0 lead.
Carolina continued to apply relentless pressure, and the home side struck again in the 20th minute. Enzo Martinez sailed a pinpoint service off the right wing to Austin da Luz, whose leaping header looped over Nasco into the upper 90 for a two-goal advantage.
Unfortunately, da Luz—returning to the starting XI and team captaincy after missing five games with a left knee injury—reaggravated the injury in the 24th minute after attempting a long shot from distance. Da Luz went down in a heap and had to come off along with Kupono Low, who also picked up an early knock. In their place came Nick Millington and Luciano Delbono, the former Wake Forest midfielder making his RailHawks debut.
The score could have been more pronounced, as Brian Shriver found himself with two 1-v-1s with Nasco before intermission. But Nasco came up big on each occasion to keep the deficit at 2-0.
Nasco continued his strong play in the second half, saving dangerous shots by Delbono in the 55th and Martinez in the 61st. But, the pressure proved too much in the 66th. Schilawski played a seeing-eye through ball ahead to a streaking Nick Addlery. The Carolina forward beat defender Martyn Lancaster and his mistimed tackle to the Joma sphere, then calmly stared down Nasco before slotting home the score.
“Just to maintain my composure,” said Addlery when asked about his technique on the professional finish, his first goal as a RailHawk. “Try to lean [the goalkeeper] to one side or make his feet stick. That’s why you kind of kick the ground and then you play it.”
The final tally came after Delbono, driving towards goal, was taken down in the box for a penalty. Shriver, vying for the NASL Golden Boot crown, stepped to the spot and deposited his PK into the right netting for his league-leading 13 goal this year.
The Silverbacks, which starting the match with a three-man back line, abandoned that formation after 20 minutes. That shift temporarily slowed the RailHawks’ attack, although it did little to provide Atlanta with their own offensive opportunities. Carolina outshot Atlanta 17-4, with Atlanta mustering only a lone shot on target. On defense, the petulant Silverbacks were whistled for 14 fouls to just five against the RailHawks.
Indeed, Saturday was a case study for an experiment in which the RailHawks once hoped they would be the guinea pig: how would a team perform during the second half of the season knowing their spot in the championship game was assured and it has nothing to play for? Atlanta, which posted a 6-3-3 record in the spring season, is 4-4-5 during the fall. The Silverbacks have lost four of their last six matches and been outscored 10-2 in their last two games. Yet, it will host the Cosmos for the league championship in just two weeks.
When asked about his team’s play during the fall season, Silverback manager Brian Haynes delivered a frank 97-second soliloquy on this and other related issues, transcribed here in full:
“In all honesty, it’s difficult because you keep telling them, ‘Look guys, we’re in the final, yes, that’s one thing. But, you’ve got to be playing well to get there.’ And all they’re thinking is, ‘Pssh, no matter what you say, we’re going to be in the final.’ It’s difficult to motivate them. It’s very difficult, and it has been. And it’s been different ways and different things I’ve had to do to keep them motivated. And the thing about it, if I go crazy right now or after the last game, then they’re all petrified of how I’m going to respond when the final comes around. So, it’s a really fine line. And in all honesty, I’m the kind of coach who I like to build up to something; I like to make sure my team is playing better and better as we go toward the end. But the season we played last spring, it wasn’t like that; you have to hit the ground running and just keep running because everybody was close.
“And then with New York coming this [season], it’s kind of an unfair advantage for them because not only do they just have to play the second half of the season, but they’re all fresh. And we’ve been playing already, and it’s difficult. So, from the standpoint of being there already, hey, it’s great, I’m in the final. But, the thing about it now is we’re asking the question what is the carrot. The carrot is only the final. If we win the second half in the fall, we’re still going to be in the final. It was difficult to motivate them.
“And I’m telling you right now, and it’s not because Colin Clarke’s a friend of mine or because Carolina beat us tonight, but I feel terribly for teams like this. Teams that have played well throughout the year and don’t get a chance to go to the final. I don’t think it’s fair, but I’m not the one to make that call.”
Carolina played Saturday without a number of regulars, including defender Kevin Rutkiewicz (who is out for the season with a knee injury) and an injured Ty Shipalane, who was spied in the 309 Depot supporters section cheering on his teammates.
Also absent was center back Julius James, who started 16 games this year for Carolina but not the last two against New York and Minnesota. A club official confirmed that James is no longer actively involved with the team.
After Saturday’s match, Clarke was somewhat cagey about his reasons for the move.
“Just a decision that I thought we needed to make,” Clarke said. “As we move forward and continue to look to grow and improve as a club, I just feel that anybody that’s here needs to be giving 110 percent for the badge and for the club. And that wasn’t the case, so we decided to make a move.”
With players like Delbono, Jake Beckford and goalkeeper Tim Murray (who got the start over Akira Fitzgerald, missing his first league game this year) seeing time last night with an eye towards future contracts, it seemed appropriate to ask Clarke about his status for 2014. When signed as the RailHawks’ manager prior to 2012
, his contract was for two years guaranteed and a club option for a third.
Clarke said that no decision has been made about his status for next year. When asked if he planned to be back as Carolina manager in 2014, Clarke glanced at RailHawks president Curt Johnson standing in the rear of the media room and replied, “That’s not my decision.”
When pressed on whether he wanted to return as manager, Clarke was more forthcoming.
“I’d love to be back,” he responded. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing here. I think we’ve moved forward in a lot of different areas, on the field and off the field. The youth, the academy, all the other good stuff that I enjoy working and being a part of. So, yes, I’d love to be back. I’m disappointed that we’re not playing in the final in two weeks, and that’s the one thing that we have to put right. Like I said, it’s bittersweet because four months ago we played [Atlanta] and [were] disappointed not to get the result that I felt that we...not sure we deserved but we could have done. We went out there tonight and proved what a good team we are.”
The RailHawks (6-2-5, 20 pts.) host the San Antonio Scorpions in their regular season finale next Saturday, Nov. 2 in Cary.