All those factors will need to come into play this Saturday when Carolina hosts third-place Minnesota United FC at WakeMed Soccer Park. And next Saturday, June 29, the RailHawks welcomes the currently league-leading Atlanta Silverbacks to Cary. Two victories would put Carolina at least two points ahead of Atlanta entering the final week of the Spring season and could clinch the Spring championship, depending on the outcome of the Silverbacks’ match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies this week. That would also give the RailHawks the right to host the NASL Soccer Bowl championship in November.
Sandwiched between these pivotal league games, Carolina travels to Utah this Wednesday, June 26 to face Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It’s a daunting undertaking for the RailHawks, which has not won a road match this season. However, should Carolina defeat RSL, the club already knows it would host the U.S. Open Cup semifinal on August 7 against either FC Dallas or the Portland Timbers.
But first up is Minnesota United, the preseason NASL favorites that are still in the thick of the Spring race, only three points out of first place. Carolina’s May 4 visit to Minnesota ended in a 2-2 draw thanks to an 84th minute golazo by RailHawks loanee Enzo Martinez.
“You probably look at their results and season and think they’ve not done very well,” says RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “But they’re right there on that threshold of winning the Spring season along with ourselves and Atlanta. They’ve won a lot of games, they’ve got a lot of points late in games, which shows good character about them.”
However, the task will be made more arduous due to a couple of recent significant injuries. Ty Shipalane, the RailHawks’ speedy playmaker, suffered a pulled hamstring during the game at FC Edmonton last Sunday. According to Clarke, the injury will likely keep Shipalane out for the remainder of the Spring season. In addition, center back Julius James tweaked his hamstring again during training this week. Clarke says James will probably miss the Minnesota and Real Salt Lake matches, with the soonest he might return being against Atlanta next Saturday.
The loss of arguably the RailHawks’ best defender and most impactful offensive threat is sure to have tangible consequences. But, Clarke says these are the times when a team must come together.
“We’ve got a good, strong squad, Clarke says. “And even though we’re going to be missing one or two players who have contributed a lot to this team and results over this season, we’ve still got depth. New players are going to be coming in who need to step up.”
One of those players is César Elizondo, the Costa Rican international who looks to make his second start against Minnesota since joining the RailHawks in early May. Elizondo has netted three goals in Carolina’s last three games, all of them equalizing or game-winning scores.
Elizondo’s journey to Cary actually began years ago.
“I saw César at Puerto Rico, actually, when he tried out for the team when he was younger,” Clarke remembers. “So, I knew about him and he was on my radar since he was a young kid. I knew his agent, so I knew he was available and was coming back from Thailand [where he played for Buriram United F.C.]. The opportunity arose for us to sign him, and I was more than happy to do so.”
One bit of good news is that defender Jordan Graye, who missed the last two games with an injury, is available for the Minnesota match, as well as the rest of the key games this week that Clarke says his team is ready for.
“It’s playoff soccer right now,” says Clarke. “That’s the mentality right now for ourselves, Atlanta and Minnesota. I don’t see anyone else getting involved, no matter what the league wants to say. To me it’s a three-horse race. We’ve all got to play each other, and someone’s going to come out the other side and win a nice, big prize at the end of it.”