The game encapsulates every variance of RailHawks teams through the years. First, there was a stultifying lack of scoring, aided by sound defending, ineffective finishing, tentative possession and lots of long balls forward. After halftime was the blazing offensive onslaught, full of speed, space and shots resulting five goals over a 30-minute span. Finally, there was eye-poppingly poor late game defending, practically gifting the opponent back into a game to the tune of four goals (including an own goal) allowed over a 20-minute stretch.
That’s right—a combined nine goals scored in the second half between full-strength squads. Toss in autumnal weather, free thundersticks for the kids and postgame fireworks for the 5,593 in attendance, and, well, you’ve got a quintessential American pro soccer game.
While RailHawks manager Colin Clarke compared the scoreless first half to a chess match where both players are sizing up each other, the better analogy for the entire match is a heavyweight prize fight. The RailHawks and Cosmos spent half the match feeling out their opponent. A long ball here, a wayward through ball there … the half featuring little offense and stout defending, particularly by the Cosmos’ midfield and back line.
The best scoring chance for Carolina in the first half came in the 10th minute, when striker Devon Sandoval caught up to a through ball into the box before Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer. While Sandoval’s ensuing shot got past Maurer, the keeper got a piece of it, allowing defender Carlos Mendes to clear the ball from danger a few feet short of the goal line.
Indeed, Cosmos manager Gio Savarese admitted his team’s starting XI was designed around a defensive strategy.
“In the first half, tactically we did what we were looking to do,” Savarese said. “Close spaces, disconnecting some of their players, disrupting their patterns. But after their first goal, we got in a panic situation.”
“I thought both teams cancelled each other out in the first half,” Clarke said. “But I felt [the Cosmos] were playing as well as they could, and I felt we could play and move the ball better. And we came out at the start of the second half and did that.”
And returning to the boxing analogy, the second half brought a barrage of haymakers that put both teams on the ropes.
Carolina’s first goal came just three minutes into the second stanza. Driving off the right touchline, Ty Shipalane dribbled through and around three Cosmos defenders before passing the ball to Sandoval stationed within the penalty arc about 20 yards from goal. Sandoval took a touch to his left, then moved to his right and delivered a shot that deflected off Hunter Gorskie’s leg and past a misdirected Maurer for a 1-0 lead.
“The pass came to my left foot, then I played it over to my right,” Sandoval recalled, “I figured the defender would try to block my shot, so I tried putting it through his legs and it paid off.”
In the 58th minute, Carolina doubled their lead when Leo Osaki’s free kick from 25 yards out cleared the Cosmos wall and snuck into the upper 90, beyond the reach of a leaping Maurer.
It was a free kick golazo worthy of Cosmos dead ball specialist Marcos Senna, who didn’t enter the match until the 61st minute. And not coincidentally, the Cosmos got their first goal three minutes later.
A speculative cross from the right wing into the box by Hunter Freeman skimmed off the head of leaping RailHawks’ defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe and into the far net for an own goal, cutting Carolina’s lead to 2-1.
A mere minute later, the RailHawks regained their two-goal advantage. Off the right wing, Shipalane drove toward the end line before delivering a low liner to Sandoval in the box, who took a cheeky flick that was saved by an alert Maurer. However, Enzo Martinez was present to stick back the rebound for a 3-1 lead.
Two minutes later, the RailHawks struck again. Beyond the midfield line, Martinez played a perfectly weighted ball ahead to a streaking Sandoval, who outran defender Jimmy Ockford and then rounded Maurer before completing a clinical finish from 18 yards out.
“Enzo played me a perfect ball,” Sandoval said. “I got in behind and saw the keeper coming out, so I just took a touch around him and put it away. It was an open net, so I better put that one away.”
However, just two more minutes later, in the 69th, the Cosmos cut the lead to 4-2. A corner kick managed to ricochet across the face of goal before finding Ockford standing far post, who easily stuck in the sitter.
After a scoring drought of nine whole minutes, the RailHawks got their fifth and final goal in the 78th minute. Shipalane once again gathered the ball along the right edge of the penalty area before playing it over to second-half sub Zack Schilawski just atop the box. Schilawski took a touch, spun around Senna and then cut loose a left-footer that nicked off a Cosmos defender, altering its trajectory into the upper left corner of the goal.
It is Schilawski’s ninth goal this year, and despite his recent absence from the club after entering law school last month, it ties him with Fafa Picault of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers for second-most in the NASL.
Two minutes later, the Cosmos cut the lead to 5-3. Another loose ball in the box poorly cleared by the RailHawks fell to the feet of Mads Stokkelien, who poked in the short-range goal, his team-leading seventh this year.
It became true fingernail-biting time in the 89th minute when yet another poorly cleared loose ball in the area fell this time to second-half sub Stefan Dimitrov for an easy putback, cutting the lead to 5-4.
Ironically, the highlight of a game that featured nine goals in a single half was the one that didn’t happen. In the 90th minute, RailHawks sub Nacho Novo poked ahead a loose ball at midfield along the right touchline, lept a sliding defender, took a touch and then uncorked a 55-yard shot that caught a jet stream and sailed over the head of Maurer, who Novo had spied playing well off his line. Indeed, the ball was bound for the upper 90, and only a hasty retreat and leaping fingertip save by Maurer prevented the league’s goal of the season.
The RailHawks’ five goals are the most surrendered in any game by the Cosmos since reentering the NASL in 2013; indeed, the new Cosmos had not surrendered more than three goals in a game before Saturday.
“A team that scores four goals shouldn’t lose a game,” Savarese plainly stated.
Despite his team’s late-game defensive collapse, Clarke found a silver lining in the manner Carolina ultimately held fast for the three points.
“It’s a lot easier to drop your head and think, ‘Here we go again,’” Clarke said. “The problem we had in Ottawa was we didn’t kill the game off in the last 30-40 seconds by putting [the ball] in the corner and keeping it and not giving the other team a chance for a corner, and to allow the officials to give them the goal that never was.
“Tonight, when we got into that situation late, we had that little more experience on the field with Schilawski, Austin da Luz and Novo to come on. We kept the ball, we took it into corners and we killed the game off.”
The RailHawks retained their fourth position in the NASL combined yearly standings. However, four of Carolina’s final six regular season games are on the road. The RailHawks don’t return to WakeMed Soccer Park until Oct. 18 for a pivotal match against the Strikers.
Meanwhile, Sandoval, who has ascended to near cult status for the RailHawks in his two short games on loan from Real Salt Lake, returns to his MLS parent club after leading Carolina to consecutive wins over two of the top NASL teams and snapping Carolina’s three-game home losing skid. He will figure for RSL in a Sept. 30 friendly against Sacramento Republic FC followed by a reserve league match against Chivas USA on Oct. 6. At that time, the RailHawks can inquire about reacquiring Sandoval for the NASL stretch run.
“I’m really happy about how things went and happy to get some goals and help out the team,” Sandoval said. “I have to go back and figure it out with [RSL], but they aren’t ruling out me coming back.
“This year for [RSL] has been tough and I haven’t had the success I wanted coming off of last year,” Sandoval continued. “So coming here, I really wanted to do well and prove myself and score goals. I think I did that, and hopefully I can carry it on. And I might be back … I don’t know, we’ll see.”
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—When a time capsule is planted under the center circle of WakeMed Soccer Park to inform, a millennia hence, our planet of ape overlords or extraterrestrial invaders about the history of the Carolina RailHawks Football Club, the first artifact included must be a recording of the RailHawks’ 5-4 victory over the New York Cosmos Saturday evening in Cary, NC.