On this late-summer evening, however, it was the Carolina RailHawks of old that flocked around WakeMed Park’s pristine pitch. Before 4,629 eager partisans, Carolina was as keen as mustard, finding goals from familiar wellsprings while earning their first 90-minute clean sheet since the July 3rd whitewash of Montreal.
Picking up where they left off two weeks ago, the Strikers applied early pressure on the RailHawks’ recently unsteady backline. Two of Carolina goalkeeper Brad Knighton’s five saves on the night thwarted pointblank headers by Mike Palacio in the 22nd minute and potent striker Abe Thompson in the 23rd.
After being dispossessed on the tail end of a deep run in the 28th minute, Pablo Campos played give-and-go with a driving Etienne Barbara in the 30th. After gathering Campos’ return pass, Barbara was tripped by Strikers’ defender Toni Stahl inside the box. The referee whistled the obvious penalty and awarded a PK that a stutter-stepping Barbara delivered into the left postage stamp past diving Strikers’ keeper Matt Glaeser for his NASL-leading 17th goal on the season.
“I got the ball laid off from Brian Farber and I saw [Pablo] coming out and…played a one-two with him,” said Barbara. “The pass was a great ball back and I managed to take a touch. One of the [defenders] running with me tripped me.”
After taking the 1-0 lead into halftime, the RailHawks’ Kupono Low nearly returned the favor to Ft. Lauderdale in the 47th minute, making a hard tackle inside the box that left the Strikers howling for a penalty.
In the 54th minute, the fleet-footed Farber made a deep run that ended with the attacking midfielder bobbling his dribble before he was able to send a cross towards goal.
The teams would exchange unfinished chances for the remainder the match. In the 62nd minute, a Strikers corner led to a Thompson header that Carolina’s Jonny Steele cleared off the line. Later, in the 80th minute, Thompson would pull a dead-center shot attempt wide left of goal.
In between, Barbara saw another promising drive stymied in the 71st minute when he claims he was taken down along the right flank by speedy defender Lance Laing. Lobbying for a foul, Barbara lay prone on the pitch as play continued on its opposite end. Concerns over Barbara’s vital signs were allayed, however, when the Maltese striker popped up and began yelling vociferously at the referee, the linesman, and the fourth official, and possibly a couple of ball boys, concessionaries, and the RailHawks’ mascot Swoops. It was harsh words hurled in the direction of RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie, however, that immediately preceded Barbara’s early exit in the 77th minute, demonstrating that a two-goal lead is always a great opportunity for the coach to enforce a “Don’t Cross the Boss” policy.
“It was an important win for us tonight,” Rennie said. “After tying at home last game, getting back on a winning run at home was important. That’s our 10th win at home out of 12 this season, and I thought everybody performed a little better tonight than we have in the last few games. Basically, I’m looking at the performance, and overall that was better.”
Saturday marked Carolina’s third match in a week, and Rennie made several lineup changes in order to give a few players needed rest and the team a different mix. Tony McManus started for the third time in as many games since joining the team, playing holding midfield in place of Chris Nurse. Cory Elenio made only his second start of the season, sliding into right back in place of the injury Devon McKenney and Floyd Franks. And, Brian Farber spelled Nick Zimmerman for only the second match this year that Zimmerman hasn’t been penciled into the Starting XI.
“The coach changed the team a little bit with some freshness, and they did a great job,” said Barbara. “We played much better, especially with possession, which was something that was lacking with our team the last three games.”
For Barbara, it was the change in Carolina’s style of play that most pleased him following a long ball forward fest versus NSC Minnesota that saw the orb stay airborne enough to earn frequent flyer miles.
“This week, especially after the Minnesota game, Martin wanted to change how we play, less coming in from behind and more building up and going direct unless we really, really get them on a counter. The more possession we keep, the less tired we get. The ball goes around, it’s nice football, we don’t get tired, and when we are keeping possession [the opposition] will chase and get caught behind us. But, if we always go with balls from the back and [have to] chase them, that’s not football, man. I might as well go play in England.”
Asked about the RailHawks’ recent defensive woes since the departure of team captain Brad Rusin, Watson offered his perspective on Rusin’s replacement.
“Losing Brad was huge, and Cory [Miller] is obviously young. It’s [a matter of] confidence with Cory. The more he plays the more confidence he’s going to get on the ball. Some of the guys have been giving him a hard time because we expect a lot out of everyone on the team — we have very high standards. The more he plays the more comfortable he’s going to be and the more comfortable the team’s going to be as a whole.”
Carolina (15-4-3) remains four points ahead of second-place Puerto Rico with six games left in the regular season. The RailHawks travel to Atlanta next Saturday, where a win over the Silverbacks would clinch an important first-round bye in the NASL playoffs. Carolina then returns to WakeMed Park on Saturday, Sept. 3 to take on FC Tampa Bay.
In the meantime, Watson believes the team may have turned a corner.
“I think we won so many games it’s like we expected to win,” Watson admits. “We had almost a little bit of arrogance, [but] then as soon as we did lose that led to nervousness. The pressure starts piling on as everyone looks at our results after winning 10 in a row expecting us to win. But, we got back to basics and are starting to get back to our old ways.”