The last meeting between the clubs at WakeMed Soccer Park ended with a scuffle between Etienne Barbara and Impact defender Adam Braz that resulted in Barbara delivering a glancing blow to the side of Braz’s head that left the Canadian writhing on the ground in faux-agony. The match before that was the infamous handball controversy, in which the Impact scored two goals in the final 15 minutes, including a game-ended penalty kick, which facilitated multi-game suspensions being meted out to RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie and other members of the team’s staff.
With the Impact holding a 1-0 goal advantage over the RailHawks after the first leg of their playoff semifinal series played Thursday in Montreal, tensions were expectantly high Sunday night at WakeMed Soccer Park. Montreal are the defending USSF Division 2 champions and only needed to hold serve against Carolina to again reach the league finals. The RailHawks, still searching for their first goal against full strength competition this playoffs, needed to best their opponents by two goals in regulation and, if needed, extra time. A one-goal victory would trigger the dreaded PK shoot-out.
In the end, the RailHawks downed Montreal 2-0 — 2-1 on aggregate — to win the series in dramatic and, naturally, controversial fashion, propelling Carolina to their first-ever league championship series. Among the 2,869 fans at WakeMed Park was a small but boisterous contingent of Impact diehards who made the trip from Canada, bringing their inflatable noise sticks and unison chants with them. There were so many Montreal media and staffers in the press box pregame that I thought I’d wandered onto the set of a Godard film.
Adding to his litany of curious coaching decisions as of late, Rennie left Josh Gardner and Gregory Richardson out of the starting lineup. Richardson’s reserve role was most surprising, as the fast, effective forward was rested after not playing Thursday.
Also missing was injured right back Devon McKenney, who was acquired late this season to replace an injured Greg Shields. So, Rennie was forced to insert Cory Elenio at right back, although it is a position the midfielder has seen time at throughout the year.
The first half saw the teams exchange promising but empty chances. The most promising for the RailHawks came in the 16th minute, when a corner kick from Daniel Paladini found Brad Rusin, who pounded a textbook header into the ground. However, Impact goalkeeper Matt Jordan dove to his left to make a terrific stop. Montreal's closest scoring attempt was in the 26th minute, when a bicycle kick by Patrick Leduc hit the crossbar.
“At halftime, I was disappointed we hadn’t played as well as we could have,” said Rennie. “But, what I did say to the players at halftime was I was happy we were still in the game. Traditionally, when [Montreal] has done well in the playoffs they’ve scored a goal away from home in the first 5-10 minutes. So, with the score nil-nil going into the second half, I knew we could find energy.”
As several RailHawks shots sailed wide and over the goal, matters seemed to grow desperate as the clock reached 70 minutes. With Gardner and Richardson now standing at the midline ready to enter the match, a Paladini free kick toward the goal was knocked around before bounding out to Matt Watson on the right side of the penalty box. Watson sent a close-range cross into the goalmouth, where Rusin’s right foot sent the sitter skyward and into the back of the net.
“When the ball popped out, at first I was going to just smash it,” said Watson. “Then, I saw a bunch of our players in the middle, so I just put it across and Brad put it in.”
With the RailHawks partisans roaring, Rennie pulled back Gardner and Richardson, electing to forge ahead with his first XI with an eye towards holding serve until 30 minutes of rapidly approaching extra time. However, Carolina’s tired legs repeatedly succumbed to Montreal’s still-formidable midfield, as surrendered possessions by the RailHawks gave the Impact several forays into their attacking third.
“They were attacking us, and [Watson] got the ball out and played it into space for me,” said Heinemann. “I saw [Impact defender Nevio] Pizzolitto getting ready to slide, so I tried to get my hips around it, lock my ankle, and strike through it.”
With Montreal now throwing men forward in stoppage time desperation, midfielder Tony Donatelli got off a screamer that was deflected by RailHawks’ keeper Eric Reed. The rebound bounded to Marco Terminesi, who punched in a seeming equalizer from short range. Montreal celebrated while a stunned home crowd looked on in disbelief.
It was the celebratory gyrations by several RailHawks that first alerted everyone to the lineman’s flag raised along the far side of the field, signaling an offside call against Terminesi and a disallowed goal. Montreal went, well, bonkers. Yellow cards for arguing and otherwise accosting the linesman were shown to Terminesi and Hicham Aaboubou. When the referee’s final whistle blew several long minutes later, a band of Impact players literally chased the officials off the pitch, the linesman in controversy futilely using his flag as a buffer. As the RailHawks celebrated, the field was literally littered with fallen Montreal players mourning their defeat.
“We just kept battling,” said Rusin. “If it had gone to overtime, it would have been whoever had more in them. I knew we had to get it before [regulation] time ended. It was just a battle tonight, and we did better and fought harder.”
For the evening, the clubs were nearly even (14-13) on shots taken; Jordan had six saves while Reed registered five. While Montreal held a 11-3 advantage in corner kicks, one key for the RailHawks was holding Impact striker Ali Gerba scoreless for the series. After registering nine goals in 13 games since rejoining the Impact mid-season, Gerba netted four goals last week during Montreal's two-match playoff quarterfinal series against the Austin Aztex.
“I think there’s just a touch of bad blood between us,” said Watson, stating the obvious. “They’ve got a couple of physical guys who tried to bully us a little bit. A lot of others teams in the league haven’t got enough heart, and I think we’ve shown tonight that we do.”
The RailHawks will now face the Puerto Rico Islanders for the league championship. The 8th seed Islanders downed the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 on aggregate to advance to the finals. Carolina and Puerto Rico also faced off four times this season, with the RailHawks winning three games and losing once. The finals format is again an aggregate goal, home-and-away series. The first leg takes place next Sunday, October 24 in Puerto Rico, with the return match in Cary on Saturday, October 30 at 7 p.m.
“One of the things I love about when you get to championships is what it does for people in the community, how much they get connected and excited about it,” beamed Rennie.
“And, then it starts to mean something to them, and then you try to start to build a club. That’s what the vision has been for a long time, to try to bring some excitement and success, which gives you a foothold to bring even more success.”