The RailHawks’ win over the Strikers two weeks ago stemmed the dismal tide. A victory at Atlanta last Saturday clinched an important first round bye in next month’s NASL playoffs. And, Puerto Rico drew with FC Edmonton last Tuesday before losing at Atlanta last night, snapping the Islanders’ six-game unbeaten streak.
Finally, the Carolina RailHawks (17-4-3) completed a season-sweep over FC Tampa Bay, defeating them 2-0 at WakeMed Soccer Park Saturday evening before 3,015 assembled partisans, an impressive crowd considering the game was competing locally with the first day of the college football season, including N.C. State’s home opener being played at the same time approximately three miles down the road.
The win was significant on several fronts. First, it puts Carolina nine points clear of Puerto Rico with only three matches left on the Islanders’ regular season schedule, meaning the RailHawks need only wring one point out of their four remaining matches to clinch the NASL regular season crown.
Moreover, the clean sheet came compliments of the RailHawks’ much-needed new-look defense. The team’s already wafer-thin backline endured an additional hit this week when starting center back John Krause temporarily left to join the Puerto Rico national team for CONCACAF World Cup qualifying through Sept. 10.
Almost three weeks ago, the RailHawks were in need of three categories of loan acquisitions for their late-season stretch run and the looming playoffs: a top Division 3 defender, a capable D3 scoring threat and a talented MLS reservist.
Enter Gareth Evans, a finalist for USL Pro Defender of the Year and a First Team All-League defenseman, Sallieu Bundu, the long-time RailHawk who netted 15 points for the Charlotte Eagles this season, and Tyler Lassiter, the former N.C.S.U. standout and a reserve center back for the New York Red Bulls.
Saturday’s win over FC Tampa Bay was Evans and Lassiter’s first match alongside each other, and they proved as potent a one-two punch as Etienne Barbara and Pablo Campos have been all season at the opposite end of the pitch.
“They’re a good match,” observed a relieved Campos. “Gareth’s a strong player and Tyler’s got great technique and knows how to play the ball. If you watch the [defenses] in MLS, they have a very strong guy and another guy who knows how to organize the defense and play [the ball]. So, I think we’ve got a good match, and you could see that tonight because I don’t think [Tampa] had any [real] opportunities to score.”
Speaking of Campos, even more credit for Saturday’s win rests on his feet, as the Brazilian forward played perhaps his best game of the season. Campos was active from the start, making deep runs and finding the business end of several headers in the opening 10 minutes that barely failed to materialize. He even played a clever back-heel pass across the box in the 14th minute to Nick Zimmerman, who couldn’t get a shot off.
In the 19th minute, a corner kick from Kupono Low found Campos, and this time the striker’s point-blank header proved true, finding the back of the net and giving Carolina the early 1-0 lead.
In the 38th minute, the terrific Matt Watson - who was a dynamo on both ends of the field for 90 minutes - played the ball ahead on the right flank for Brian Farber, who was starting in place of an injured Jonny Steele. Farber crossed to a driving and unmarked Campos, whose sliding putaway provided Carolina a 2-0 advantage.
Campos’ brace gives him 11 goals this season, tied for second in the NASL with Mike Ambersley, Tampa’s leading scorer and reigning NASL Player of the Month, who did not play in Saturday’s match.
The lone lowlight for the RailHawks played out over the last five minutes of the first half and the opening five minutes of the second stanza. While displaying good work rate, league-leading scorer Etienne Barbara played off-kilter, failing to control a killer cross from Watson in the 41st and then, in the 46st minute, making a complete mess of a 1-v-1 opportunity, losing control of his dribble before sending his shot sailing wide of the target.
In the 50th minute, Barbara tangled with Tampa defender Andrew Arango. As the two faced-off and Arango stuck his schnoz between Barbara's eyes, Barbara responded by head-butting Arango in full view of the referee. Barbara was shown a straight red card while Arango, who fell to turf as if mortally maimed, was sent-off for sundry related transgressions with his second yellow card of the match.
Barbara’s churlish on-field theatrics have always toed the line between ingenious and intemperate - sometimes it can take an opponent out his game, and sometimes it can (literally) take Barbara out of his. A sulking but visibly chastened Barbara later took up station in the heart of the grandstands to watch his teammates complete their victory. Still, he will be suspended for least this Wednesday’s match at Fort Lauderdale.
The final 40 minutes were a largely free-flowing affair, as the 10-v-10 match-up afforded plenty of space for the teams to explore. In truth, the RailHawks should have padded their score, with Watson, Campos and Cory Elenio all failing to finish second half scoring chances. Campos blew two 1-v-1 stabs at a hat trick in the 68th and 70th minutes. And, a nifty game of give-and-go between Elenio and Watson in the 85th minute ended when Watson’s low roller deflected off the base of the left post.
Carolina outshot FC Tampa Bay by a whopping margin of 20-7, and only two of Tampa’s attempts were on-target.
“I thought we played really well,” said RailHawks manager Martin Rennie. “We played well on the ball and kept good possession. The second half got a bit disjointed...but we still created three or four really great chances and could have won the game by more. But, 2-nil is a great win to get the 17th regular season victory, which is a record for the franchise.”
With the roster freeze date one week away, Rennie said that the club is likely done adding new players.
“We’ve been working hard to get the players we have, and I think they’ve added a lot to this squad, especially knowing John Krause and Chris Nurse were going to be away for important games,” Rennie said. “We’ve been able to fill-in for them, and I think the guys who have played have done really well.”
The RailHawks embark on a three-game road trip this Wednesday before ending the regular season back in Cary on Sept. 24 against the NSC Minnesota Stars. With the playoffs over a month away, the regular season title is a goal the RailHawks are anxious to savor.
“Tonight was a really important game because Puerto Rico was on our back,” said Campos. “But now we are nine points ahead and that makes things more comfortable. We want to win the regular season for this franchise and for all the work that we have done.”