File photo by Joannah Irvin
Tiyi Shipalane of the Carolina RailHawks
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—After the Carolina RailHawks were thrashed 4-nil by the expansion boots of Ottawa Fury FC a mere week ago, the last thing anybody expected was that the RailHawks could rely on their defense for a win against the defending NASL champion New York Cosmos. But even after losing two players to bookings and another to injury, the RailHawks did just that, shutting out New York while riding a first-half goal from Ty Shipalane to a 1-0 win over the Cosmos.
It was a tale of two halves. It took only 12 minutes for the RailHawks’ counterattacking strategy to emerge. Carolina’s Cesar Elizondo pounced on an errant dribble by New York’s Danny Szetela in the Cosmos’ attacking third and—in keeping with Kentucky Derby Saturday—was off to the races. Elizondo outran Szetela, juked past a helpless Marcos Senna, and then laid the ball off to a streaking Shipalane. Shipalane’s first shot was blocked by Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, but the rebound found Shipalane’s foot and his second attempt was true.
“It was a great counterattack by Cesar,” Shipalane said. “He was able to beat three or four guys, and then I was able to keep up with him and make sure I was in the right spot staying onside. I shot and the goalkeeper made a great save, but I was able to stay with it. It wasn’t an easy finish, but I was able to do it.”
The RailHawks’ counterattack would wreak havoc for the Cosmos the entire first half. Indeed, Shipalane nearly doubled the score in the 16th minute when his angled shot inside the box caromed off the crossbar.
Meanwhile, Toni Ståhl made his first start at center back for Carolina, with Connor Tobin moving to right back. When Tobin picked up an early yellow card, the Cosmos—usually in the form of Jemal Johnson—proceeded to launch sorties in his direction that felt bound to eventually find their intended target.
Senna left the game at intermission after complaining of tightness in his hamstring. But it was another halftime adjustment that had a bigger impact on the remainder of the match. Cognizant of the space Elizondo and Shipalane were being given to run free, Cosmos manager Gio Savarese altered his team’s formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2. He also shifted his back line and midfield higher to pressure the RailHawks and cut down their space.
“I think Carolina was effective in taking advantage of the space we gave them at the beginning of the game,” Savarese said. “They didn’t create many chances, but every time we gave them that space in the first half they looked dangerous. After we fixed it, then I think there was no more game. There was one team on the pitch, we just couldn’t finish. We couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net.”
However, the most significant shift in strategy came once the head official’s cards started flying. After a couple of yellow card appetizers to start the second half, referee Jorge Gonzalez sent off Cosmos Sebastián Guenzatti after a kerfuffle with RailHawk Kupono Low ended with Guenzatti landing a hand to Low’s head. Incidentally, Low was also shown a yellow card for reasons yet unexplained. More on that in a moment …
The RailHawks’ man advantage lasted only seven minutes. In the 63rd, Gonzalez showed Tobin his second yellow for a slide tackle in which Tobin was first to the ball but Ayoze took a blatant tumble, then lept to his feet gesturing for a card from Gonzalez. The referee obliged and sent Tobin off.
Five minutes later, matters got worse for Carolina. A reckless tackle by Low took the legs out from under Szetela. The referee played the advantage, and the play ended with a low cross into goal being cleared out by a sliding Low for a Cosmos corner. A New York player went to ground, so when Gonzalez rushed in to show Low his second yellow card and send him off, the Cosmos argued that a penalty kick should be awarded. Indeed, Savarese was still protesting the absence of a PK during his postgame press conference.
However, video replay clearly shows that as the Cosmos players were appealing for a penalty after the play, Gonzalez gestured back to midfield, indicating the booking was for Low’s previous tackle. Regardless, the RailHawks were now down to nine players, one fewer than New York.
More protestations emerged in the 71st, when Shipalane dribbled around Maurer and attempted to drive the end line toward goal. Ayoze, already carrying a yellow card, stuck out a leg and took down Shipalane. Gonzalez whistled a foul and ran in, clearly reaching for the front shirt pocket containing his dogeared cards. However, he suddenly pulled his hand away, thereby declining to send off Ayoze.
After the match, no one was happy with the way the game was officiated. Savarese was still griping about the lack of a PK. Meanwhile, the RailHawks felt hard done-by two players being sent off.
“A lot of craziness with three red cards,” RailHawks manager Colin Clarke observed. “I didn’t think it was warranted at all. I felt some of the decisions from the officials were a little bizarre at times.”
Ståhl, who was a resolute rock at center back, was more direct.
“I’m sorry, but the refereeing was absolutely horrendous today,” Stahl said. “I’ve never been in such a crazy game with so many red cards just thrown out. It’s a shame that we lost two players and the Cosmos lost one, as well. I thought they were weak cards both ways.”
Meanwhile, Shipalane claimed the team trained for such contingencies all week.
“When we play against the Cosmos, anything can happen with them being a big name in this league,” Shipalane said. “A lot of calls go their way, so we just have to keep focused and whatever the ref does, that’s his job. We have no control over that.”
What was left facing the RailHawks was 20 minutes of trying to stave off the Cosmos’ 10-man attack using only nine players. So, Carolina adopted a bunker formation, one Clarke said his team actually practiced during training this week in the wake of last weekend’s defensive debacle in Ottawa.
“The way we played was two banks of four, as we call it,” Clarke explained. “We do a lot of that in training for defensive shape. We worked on it this week because I didn’t think our defensive shape was good enough last week in Ottawa.”
Ståhl had a less clinical description.
“It’s nothing but balls to the wall. Just park the bus and hope for the best.”
New York’s best opportunity came in the 77th minute when they fired two short range shots inside the box. The first shot from striker Mads Stokkelien was blocked by reflexive RailHawks goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, who had an outstanding night. The second was deflected away by center back Daniel Scott.
However, the drama was far from over. During the announced four minutes of stoppage time, RailHawks defensive sub Uriah Bentick went down and had to leave the game with a leg injury. With no substitutions remaining, Carolina was now down to eight players. Moreover, the officials sent word that stoppage time was being lengthened to five minutes, and then allowed extra time to continue for a total of seven minutes.
Finally, satisfied with the havoc he had wrought, Gonzalez whistled full time to the frustrated delight of 4,066 RailHawks partisans. The win extends Carolina’s home unbeaten streak to 18 games.
By the numbers, the statistics were lopsided in favor of New York. The Cosmos (2-0-2, 6 pts.) outshot Carolina 22-7; New York held 69 percent of the possession; and by game’s end, New York was playing with two more players on the pitch than the RailHawks.
But ultimately, the only number that matters is one, as in one goal. Carolina (2-1-1, 7 pts.) now sits alone in third place in the NASL spring table, one point behind Fort Lauderdale. However, a tough away match at San Antonio next Saturday looms, a road trip complicated by the fact that the RailHawks will apparently be without Low, Tobin and perhaps Bentick, further depleting the team’s already thin back line.
For now, however, Carolina will savor not only a win against the much vaunted Cosmos, but also the way they earned victory.
“There was no way the Cosmos were going to score tonight,” Clarke said. “You could stay out there another hour. You could see it in the players’ eyes. This was a battle they were determined to win.”