This year, the RailHawks have already set another, more ignominious record. Previously, the most games Carolina had gone without a win to start a season was four in 2007, the franchise’s debut campaign. Carolina surpassed that mark Saturday night against the expansion side San Antonio Scorpions, losing 1-0 to go winless over their opening five games of the 2012 NASL season.
After earning just one point over their recent two-game road trip, the RailHawks returned to WakeMed Soccer Park looking to find their footing against a Scorpions squad that was also without a win. Carolina appeared the stronger side for long stretches of the game. However, a late Kevin Harmes goal gave San Antonio their first victory in franchise history and left 3,041 partisans wondering when the RailHawks’ fortunes will change.
The Scorpions sought to strike first when Pablo Campos, making his return to Cary after a banner 2011 season as a member of the RailHawks, broke through the middle of Carolina’s defense and found himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Ray Burse. Campos hesitated to pull the trigger and attempted to round the keeper, but Burse didn’t bite and instead pushed Campos wide to avert danger.
In the 14th minute, Nick Zimmerman gathered a loose ball in the box and appeared to poke it through for a goal. However, the ball deflected off an offside Jason Garey on its way towards the net, negating the score.
An injured Greg Shields left the game in the 25th minute, requiring Cory Elenio to fill-in at right back. Then, just before halftime, RailHawks manager Colin Clarke subbed out midfielder Mike Palacio for the speedy Ty Shipalane, leaving Carolina with only one remaining substitution. Palacio appears to have receded into Clarke’s doghouse the last several games after a tremendous preseason.
“I didn’t see enough from Michael,” Clarke explained. “I think Michael’s having a tough time right now. I decided to make a change; I wanted to get after their fullbacks with pace and run at them, and we weren’t doing that. So I brought Ty on to do that.”
After a scoreless first half, the RailHawks came out the more aggressive team. Shipalane delivered a laser cross across the face of goal in the 48th minute to which neither Brian Shriver nor Garey could catch up. In the 61st minute, an unmarked Elenio pushed into the box and delivered a curler that careened off the crossbar. Shriver gathered the rebound but pushed his shot right of goal.
With the offense not taking advantage of their chances. the RailHawks defense slowly began to do what they’ve done all season. It began in the 65th minute, when a tentative, out-rushing Burse nearly surrendered an open goal before making a last-second recovery. Then, center back Austen King injured his ankle in the 73rd minute. Clarke subbed in midfielder Breiner Ortiz and shifted Amir Lowery to the back line.
In the 82nd minute, Scorpions sub Esteban Bayona played a ball through the box to an oncoming Harmse. The unmarked Harmse reached the ball before the ossified defenders and slotted the sphere past Burse to put San Antonio ahead.
“That’s [a play] we’ve worked on all week,” said Campos. “Kevin came from the back and got a through ball and scored the goal. Nobody was expecting him to run through the defenders, so he came by surprise.”
Carolina’s last best chance came during full-time stoppage when Shipalane launched a short-range blast that didn’t count because 1) it clanged off the crossbar, and 2) the linesman signaled Shipalane for offsides.
“Goals change games; goals give confidence,” said Clarke. “We looked like the team that was going to score and win the game, and then Austen [King] gets injured, which throws us out of shape a little bit,. And, we have to be better in their final third.”
The game marked a triumphant return for Campos, who expressed fond memories of his time in Cary, feelings reciprocated by RailHawks fans who loudly cheered the Brazilian striker during pregame player introductions.
“It’s awesome,” Campos confessed. “The guy announced my name and the people were screaming my name [even though] I’m playing against them. I’m so happy to be here, so thanks to the fans.”
Campos said that although he is pleased to be playing for San Antonio and their soccer-hungry fanbase, his initial preference was to return to Carolina for a second season.
“I wanted to come here but nobody made the deal go through,” Campos explained. “So, I couldn’t wait longer. I was willing to come here, but I don’t know what happened. I had to make a move, so I made a move.
“I’m happy, but I can tell you that I like Carolina. I like coming here, I like the crowd, I like the franchise and the owners—they were always good to me.”
“I think it’s starting to weigh on [the team’s] mind a little bit,” admitted Clarke. “Maybe they’re a little bit worried about what the expectation was, and they need to forget about that and just go ahead and play.”
It is both easy and accurate to heap blame on the beleaguered back line. Carolina allowed another 12 shot attempts to San Antonio, upping the season total to 74. With Shields and King both injured and their status unknown for Wednesday’s home game against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, an already porous back line is also now paper-thin.
“We just need to play as a unit,” said Burse. “I think sometimes we’re individuals out there, but for us to be successful we have to play as a defensive unit starting with me and the four guys in front of me.
“I think we could communicate a little better throughout not only the back four but me as well. We’re not being vigilant about where guys are.”
The recent signing of forward Zack Schilawski—who was unavailable for Saturday’s game due documentation delays—could further bolster the RailHawks’ attack. However, Carolina is already blessed with an abundance of offensive threats, from ball strikers like Shriver and Garey to such attacking midfielders as Zimmerman, Shipalane, and Austin da Luz.
What’s missing is a deep-lying playmaker, a midfielder that can track back but also display a deft touch moving forward and act as a bridge between the front and rear. Daniel Paladini played that role in 2009 and 2010; Matt Watson took his place last year and had his best season as a RailHawk.
To date, no one filled that void. Lowery and Chris Nurse are terrific defensive midfielders, but passing and attack are not their fortes.
That leaves Palacio, the team’s best distributor throughout the preseason, particularly when linking up with Shriver, his teammate last year at Fort Lauderdale. Palacio is not nearly as defensive-minded as Paladini or Watson, but until recently he was the motor that made the RailHawks’ offense go. His recent ebb has neutered the team’s attack.
Carolina (0-3-2, 3 points) stays home for their next game this Wednesday against Fort Lauderdale. That is followed by another two-game road swing through Edmonton and Minnesota.
In the meantime, Clarke remains cautiously optimistic in his quest to forge cohesive boys of summer[s] and imitate a level of success that is proving difficult to duplicate.
“We have to keep our heads up and keep going,” he says. “We’re moving in the right direction, [but] we’re disappointed we haven’t won yet and that’s going to start to become somewhat of a mental thing.”