Meanwhile, the NSC Minnesota Stars—Carolina’s 1st-round opponent in the D2 playoffs, which begin Wednesday evening—allowed the most goals (36) of any of the eight playoff teams. And, the only club in all of D2 soccer to score fewer goals than the Stars this season was the cellar-dwelling Crystal Palace Baltimore.
So, it goes to figure that the RailHawks should be comfortable favorites against the Stars, right? To quote the late Paul Harvey, now it’s time for the rest of the story.
The only team in USSF D2 that the RailHawks did not defeat or at least draw this season is the Stars, which beat Carolina by 1-0 scores during both meetings between the clubs—the second game of the season in Cary back in April and the rematch in Minnesota last month.
The April match featured a lackluster RailHawks squad that failed to manufacture chances in the first half and then failed to convert them in the second. Then, Carolina finished the monsoon-soaked match in Minnesota with only nine players, as both Devon McKenney and Amir Lowery were sent off (McKenney in the 19th minute).
Carolina comes into the playoffs on a three-win streak, but Minnesota is riding a string of four consecutive victories. Finally, while the RailHawks’ last game was five nights ago, the rested Stars haven’t played since Sept. 24.
In trying to parse Carolina’s failings against Minnesota, a review of the RailHawks’ starting XI is hardly instructive. The games featured almost completely different backlines and goalkeepers: Eric Reed, John Gilkerson, Mark Schulte, Matt Bobo, and Greg Shields in April; Nic Platter, Daniel Woolard, Kupono Low, McKenney, and Shields in September. Etienne Barbara was the lone forward in Cary; Allan Russell started at Minnesota.
The only noticeable names missing are also the RailHawks most effective players during their recent winning streak. Gregory Richardson only played the second half of the match in April (not coincidentally, the RailHawks more effective half that game), and he was injured and did not play at all last month.
Moreover, Tom Heinemann—who has scored four goals in six games since joining the RailHawks last month—only played the last 17 minutes at Minnesota as a late game substitute for Russell.
Ultimately, however, it has been the play of the well-coached, scrappy Stars that has accounted for the difference. In both matches, Minnesota pressed high defensively, effectively neutralizing Carolina’s long ball attack. The RailHawks have made changes to their formation and positional composition in recent weeks, however, which should aid them in reaching for a victory against the Stars.
The first leg of the Carolina-Minnesota series begins tonight at Minnesota. Kickoff is at 8:00 p.m. EDT, and the game can be seen via online streaming video at www.carolinarailhawks.com. The second leg is 7:00 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 9 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.