That was before the Vancouver Whitecaps, leaders of the USSF D2’S NASL Conference, lost to the Montreal Impact Friday night. In concert with Carolina’s fine late-season run, Vancouver’s once formidable conference lead stood at a mere three points entering the RailHawks’ fourth match this season against the Puerto Rico Islanders. After defeating the Islanders twice in Puerto Rico earlier this year, the RailHawks dropped a heartbreaker to them in Cary on Aug. 28, a game that saw Carolina allow three goals for the second time in three matches.
What a difference a month makes. By the time a lively crowd of 2,879—the largest attendance for a league game at WakeMed Park this season—had filed out and the haze left by detonated smoke bombs had floated up and away from the stadium surface, the Carolina RailHawks (12-9-8, 44 pts.) had registered a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over the Puerto Rico Islanders (9-11-9, 36 pts.). The win puts Carolina into a first-place tie in the NASL Conference. Actually, for at least the next week, Carolina will hold the conference lead based on a second level tiebreaker—Carolina and Vancouver are also tied in goal differential (+10), but Carolina currently holds a 41—30 advantage in total goals scored.
On the stat sheet, the RailHawks appeared to dominate the Islanders: For the game, Carolina took 20 shots (12 on target), while Puerto Rico only managed to manufacture four. Unfortunately, one of the Islanders’ few attempts found the back of the net in just the 19th minute. While inside the penalty area, midfielder Noah Delgado back-heeled a clever pass to striker Kendall Jagdeosingh, who somehow stood unmarked and ready for an easy put-away past goalkeeper Eric Reed.
The RailHawks stepped up the pressure but failed to convert early chances. In the 29th minute, Daniel Paladini took a baseline cross in the goalmouth from Gregory Richardson but somehow sent his shot skyward. In the 43rd, Richardson gave another pass inside the box to Paladini, whose quick-fire blast found the experienced mitts of Islanders’ goalkeeper Bill Gaudette.
Finally, in the 45th minute, Tom Heinemann ran down a ball in the left corner and passed the ball over to Richardson, who again laid it off to Paladini. After dribbling across the outer reaches of the penalty box, Paladini shot the ball over to Watson, whose slotted the equalizer into the bottom left corner of the goal.
“Gregory had the ball and I wanted it off him,” recounted Watson. “Then Daniel took a touch, and I thought he was going to shoot because Paladini at the edge of the box normally shoots. But, he laid it off to me and I concentrated to hit it in the bottom corner. I made sure I hit the target, and luckily it went in.”
The RailHawks picked up where they left off after halftime. In the 47th minute, the Islanders conceded a silly corner. Josh Gardner sent the resulting kick into the box, where it found a sliding and unmarked Heinemann, who sent the ball out of Gaudette’s reach for the eventual game-winner.
“Brad [Rusin] and I kind of bumped together, and I think my guy got lost behind Brad’s big body. I found a little space, and you know the rest,” said Heinemann.
The goal was Heinemann’s third in just fives games since joining the RailHawks after his USL-2 championship season with the Charleston Battery. Heinemann now finds himself in the curious position of having a chance at a USSF D2 and D3 championship in the same season.
“That’d be something else, wouldn’t it?" said Heinemann. “I’m just trying to take it one game at a time. But, that would be awesome...that would be awesome. That’s definitely in our sights...that’s the goal.”
Throughout the match, the sense of urgency from Carolina was palpable, from the fans—including boisterous pockets of flag-waving Puerto Rico fans—to the players on the pitch to an unusually animated RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie, who seemed spend more time barking at the fourth official more than his players.
“This is the exciting time of the season where awards are given out and you either win or you don’t win,” said Rennie. “I actually believe we’ve had a good season this year; I don’t think we’ve necessarily been given all the respect I think we deserve. But, at the end of the day, we have a chance to win our conference and we’re already in the playoffs and we’ve as good a chance as anybody to win the championship.”
“I don’t know that many teams who could handle the number of injuries we’ve had and still produce performances like that,” continued Rennie. “Tonight, Greg Shields is missing, Kupono Low was missing, Matt Bobo was missing, Mark Schulte was missing, Nic Platter was missing. That’s pretty significant, but we didn’t see anyone who looked out there and said, ‘Whoah, where’s their four defenders and goalkeeper?’ That says a lot about the guys who have come in—their attitude, focus, concentration, confidence, and how good they are.”
The possibility of a regular season conference crown is certainly something the RailHawks are striving for. But, the more practical benefit of winning the conference is playoff seeding. Essentially, a second place finish in the NASL Conference would likely give Carolina the 5th seed in the eight-team USSF D2 playoffs and a first-round home-away clash with the MLS-bound Timbers. On the other hand, the conference winner is guaranteed the 2nd seed and an opening round date with the 7th place team.
The RailHawks final regular match takes place next Friday, Oct. 1 at WakeMed Park versus the league-leading Austin Aztex, who defeated the RailHawks 3-2 in Texas on Aug. 22. Vancouver’s regular season finale takes place Saturday night in Canada against...you guessed it...the Portland Timbers.
“Two weeks ago we were trying to make sure we got in the playoffs,” said Watson. “Now we have a chance to win [the conference]. That pumps everyone up and that adrenaline helped us tonight and hopefully will help us the same next week.”