WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Colin Clarke said he didn’t recall a more lackluster home performance in his three seasons as manager of the Carolina RailHawks than their 2-0 loss to the Atlanta Silverbacks Saturday evening at WakeMed Soccer Park.
There are few, if any, who would disagree.
After earning their second straight road victory last week at Tampa Bay, the RailHawks were hoping to notch three points at home and solidify their fourth-place position in the North American Soccer League (NASL) yearly standings, good for the final berth in the year-end NASL Championship playoffs. Instead, the loss to Atlanta drops Carolina to sixth place in the overall table.
“This was a big game tonight,” Clarke said. “We talked a lot about it, we prepared for it and knew what we had to do. And we came up short on the night.”
The RailHawks were dysfunctional is nearly every aspect of the match. While Atlanta kept eight of their 12 shot attempts on target, the RailHawks mustered a mere three shots the entire match, putting only one on frame. Only six terrific saves by goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald kept the listless RailHawks in a scoreless tie with Atlanta through 60 minutes.
“The first half was very blah, like two teams lacking ideas about how to break the other down,” Clarke said.
Fitzgerald’s most memorable save came in the 51st minute, when Atlanta’s Junior Sandoval put a 25-yard free kick on frame. But an alert Fitzgerald managed to tip the rocket shot to himself and away from danger.
But in the 63rd minute, Sandoval scored the game-winner, a legitimate golazo. Sandoval received the ball near the middle of the attacking third with only right back Jordan Graye between him and goal. Sandoval took a couple of touches to his right to create space, then uncorked a cracker from 30 yards out that curled into the upper 90 past a helpless Fitzgerald.
Atlanta put the icing on the RailHawks' rancid cake in the 75th minute. Atlanta played a free kick off the right flank back to defender Ryan Roushandel, who unleashed a low screamer from 25 yards out that skimmed past a stationary Leo Osaki in the box—along with a gaggle of equally disinterested RailHawks—and across the face of a diving Fitzgerald into the far net for the final 2-0 tally.
Meanwhile, any time Carolina managed to make inroads into the Silverback’s compact defense, they would take heavy touches, deliver errant passes or simply get dispossessed. As if to register their sidelong protest, the Triangle Soccer Fanatics supporters group awarded their "Growler of the Match" to Osaki, who only played the final 20 minutes of the match and accomplished nothing of consequence.
Tactically, the RailHawks appeared adift. Danny Barrera began the match playing deep and along the left flank, usually with his back to goal. Later, he shifted to a more central midfield location where he would dart about, occasionally drifting back deep where he remained ineffectual. Similarly, Nick Zimmerman failed to find a productive position on the pitch.
Most notable, however, was the fact that Ty Shipalane, the RailHawks’ second-leading scorer and dangerous speed merchant off the right wing, spent most of the match stationed near the middle of the field, leaving only Graye to make runs off the right side. The goal was to get Shipalane on the ball more. However, the maneuver played into the hands of the Silverbacks’ defense by allowing them to consolidate their defenders more centrally instead of sending one or two players wide to cope with Shipalane.
Silverbacks’ manager Jason Smith took particular notice.
“It actually made me a little happier,” Smith said about Shipalane’s shift, “because we pinch in at times in the back and overload in the middle, and we leave our backside open. With his pace, he could have hurt us maybe getting to the end line. But by coming in, we managed to keep ball and player in front of us a lot of the time.”
Another noticeable Atlanta tactic was choosing to lay off the RailHawks’ backfield and instead play a deeper defense. For weeks, the book on the RailHawks from several opposing coaches was to pressure Carolina’s defenders up high so they can’t work the ball around and play out from the back.
However, Smith said Atlanta consciously chose a different approach.
“We tried to use the top of the center circle as the line of confrontation today,” Smith explained. “We figured if we tried to step up and stop [the ball] on this big field we would run out of gas. We just had a little lower line of confrontation, conceded that space, and once they came into it then press them. Just saved a little energy so we could go 90 minutes.”
Smith also said his team’s main change at halftime was to apply more pressure on the ball once the RailHawks crossed midfield.
“In the first half, they were getting plenty of time to pick their pass,” Smith continued. “So we wanted to press a little bit more [in the second half] to see if their decision-making would be as good. I still thought they moved the ball pretty well. They tried to force a little too much through the seams up front rather than just going ahead and using their width.”
The RailHawks were playing without two of their three top scorers, and the lack of goal-scoring punch was patently apparent. It was the first home game since leading scorer Zack Schilawski left the team two weeks ago to enter law school. And Enzo Martinez also missed the match after reinjuring his toe during training this week.
Moreover, Carolina was also without starting center back Daniel Scott. Scott was involved in a high-impact motor vehicle wreck outside WakeMed Soccer Park less than two hours before kickoff. Scott was treated and eventually released from an area hospital, and his condition going forward is unknown at this time. Kwame Watson-Siriboe, who recently arrived on loan from New York FC, ably filled in for Scott to make his first start since joining the RailHawks.
With their erstwhile 23-home match winning streak now a distant memory, the RailHawks’ loss Saturday and their recent home skid has achieved historical, bullet-point-worthy proportions:
- The 2-0 loss is the first time the RailHawks have been shutout in a regular season home match since a 0-0 draw with the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Sept. 22, 2012.
- The Silverbacks’ win Saturday night is the first time Atlanta has ever won a game in Cary, NC in 11 visits dating back to 2007.
- The RailHawks have now lost three consecutive regular season home matches for only the second time in club history. The other was in 2008.
- The RailHawks have lost four of their last five regular season home matches for the second time in club history. The other was also in 2008.
One other growing statistical concern for the RailHawks is their attendance. Saturday’s tally was 3,106, the second-lowest in 2014. Despite seasonable weather, there were a number of legitimate factors behind Saturday’s sag, including the holiday weekend and the fact that UNC, NC State and Duke were all opening their college football seasons at home.
However, after averaging 5,364 fans for their four regular season home games during the NASL spring season, Carolina is averaging just 3,657 over five fall season home matches with four more remaining on the schedule.
Speaking of which, the RailHawks have never lost four consecutive regular season home games in the club’s history. After traveling to Ottawa Fury FC next weekend, Carolina return to Cary on Sept. 13 tasked with breaking their home slide against the San Antonio Scorpions, the top team in the NASL fall season. By the way, the RailHawks host the New York Cosmos the following Saturday.
In the meantime, the RailHawks must find a way to fix their obvious and growing problems with performance, effort and especially team chemistry.
“I’ll apologize,” Clarke said when asked if he had anything to say to the RailHawks’ fans following Saturday’s loss. “We don’t think it was a good enough performance. If we continue to perform like that, we will not be the Championship games or playoffs. It needs to get better, and it needs to get better pretty quick.”