WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Yep, I looked it up. Just as I suspected, the word "paladini" is the Italian plural for champion, for medieval hero, for defender of a cause.
RailHawks midfielder Daniel Paladini is in brilliant form right now, and when his team needed a goal tonight, he delivered it. In the 90th minute of a 0-0 stalemate against a courageous, if overmatched, Cleveland side, Paladini lined up for a free kick from 30 yards out and to the left of the goal. Prior to taking it, he told center back and team captain Mark Schulte that he would be aiming for the far post, and that Schulte and the others in the penalty box should be prepared for a rebound. As it happened, the only assistance Paladini needed on his shot was of the most passive kind.
"It deflected a couple of times, but it found the back of the net," Paladini said afterward. Indeed, his low, hard shot somehow made it through the Cleveland City Stars defensive wall, ricocheting lightly against unknown persons and sliding into the far corner, past the flailing arms of keeper Hunter Gilstrap (a rather medieval-sounding name, too).
Paladini's stunner obliterated what had been a tightly defended stalemate. Although the Cleveland 11 were overmatched physically, they showed vast improvement over the gross defensive lapses of a week ago that led to a 3-0 thrashing by the RailHawks.
In front of the season's biggest crowd, all 5,238 of them, Cleveland showed off a much more organized defense than they had a week ago. RailHawks coach Martin Rennie named the same lineup tonight—in recognition of last week's tiptop performance—but there was a different Cleveland team on the pitch. Paladini said the Stars "cut off the corners," rendering wingers Luke Kreamalmayer and John Cunliffe much less effective tonight. Also less effective: striker Andriy Budnyy, who had a goal last week. Tonight, however, Budnyy struggled to find space at the top of the box, and mustered only one shot. Most of the assaults on the Cleveland citadel came from Paladini, who would lead the way with five shots.
The offense only really came alive with the 67th-minute substitutions of Hamed Diallo and Joseph Kabwe for holding midfielder Brad Rusin and right winger Luke Kreamalmayer, respectively. The 4-1-4-1 formation changed to a 4-4-2, with Diallo joining Budnyy at the top. Kabwe and Diallo created much mischief for the Cleveland back four—and Diallo picked up a yellow card for charging Gilstrap in the box—but they managed no shots. Mr. Paladini, medieval champion, took care of that, breaching the defensive fortifications of his opponent.
It was truly a beautiful evening: The temperature was mild and it felt like rain, without raining. The storms in the area blew past us to the north, where we could see clouds that looked like the mountains out West. It was gratifying to get a goal at the end, to send the large crowd homeward with a victory.
The RailHawks don't play again for 11 days. The team has been given four days off before they are to resume training. Rennie told the News and Observer recently that tonight's game would round up the first of the four "mini-seasons" into which he has divided the campaign. After 10 games, the RailHawks have 22 points and are in command of the USL's first division. But the real slog is coming: Along with tougher league competition (see discussion here and here), the RailHawks begin U.S. Open Cup play June 9, against the Richmond Kickers of the USL-2 division. That game will kick off a brutal stretch of five games in 11 days (which assumes a victory in Round 1 of the USOC).
The match report is here.