Minutes later, Clarke entered the media room for his postgame press conference. As he sauntered past on his way to the podium, Clarke glanced over and, smirking like the proverbial cat that ate the canary, shot me a quick wink.
The 2-0 win is not only the second straight year the RailHawks have ousted the defending Major League Soccer (MLS) champion Galaxy from the U.S. Open Cup. It is also the third time Clarke has coached a second division club to victory over MLS’s flagship franchise in Cup competition, the first being the Puerto Rico Islanders’ improbable win over the Galaxy in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League.
But while Wednesday’s result may arouse feelings of déjà vu, the match’s rather workmanlike vibe stands in marked contrast to last year’s heart-stopping, late-game heroics. Not surprisingly, the RailHawks fielded a full-strength starting XI, the lone wrinkle being Scottish center back Kevin Rutkiewicz getting only his second RailHawks start in lieu of Paul Hamilton and Austen King, who were both active for the match. Meanwhile, the Galaxy sported the expected lineup of reservists and second-stringers, two of the notable exceptions being the presence of Jose Villarreal and Michael Stephens.
Interestingly, both Robbie Rogers and forward Gyasi Zardes began on the bench. The latter’s omission was of particular note to Clarke, who, while complimenting his opponent’s overall talent level, admitted, “I was happy to see Zardes on the bench.”
Unlike last year, when the Galaxy thoroughly dominated the first half, Wednesday’s match featured a more back-and-forth opening stanza. While the Galaxy held the majority of possession, both teams fostered forays into their attacking third. However, a lack of finishing befell both sides: while the Galaxy outshot Carolina 6-2 in the first half, neither team put a single shot on target.
Although Zardes entered the match in the 56th minute, it was Carolina that struck first in the 59th. Another RailHawks walkabout in the box ended with a cross by Zack Schilawski that found its way to an unmarked Austin da Luz. Da Luz’s snap shot appeared stopped by goalkeeper Brian Rowe before the howler squirted through his arms and rolled across the goal line.
“It was deep ball, so I tried to whip it back across the top of the box,” Schilawski said. “[Brian] Shriver ran over it, da Luz hit it first time, and it deflected off the keeper and went in.”
With the Galaxy reeling, Carolina struck again just two minutes later. Schilawski gathered a pass and one-touched it ahead to a streaking Shriver, who got behind the defense and slotted his left-footed shot past Rowe for the 2-0 lead.
“We got [the ball] wide to da Luz, back to the middle to [Nick] Millington, and he played an easy ball to me and I was able to flick it through to Shriver,” Schilawski continued. “And he did what he’s been doing all year with a great finish.”
Galaxy assistant coach Curt Onalfo, managing in the absence of head coach Bruce Arena, who did not make the trip to North Carolina with his team, recognized this sequence as the game’s turning point.
“I don’t think our young group of players reacted the best to that situation,” Onalfo said. “Credit to Carolina, they kind of sensed that and got a second goal. And then you’re playing catch-up, and you’re on the road, you’ve traveled across the country, it’s humid and hot, and all of a sudden it becomes pretty difficult.”
Meanwhile, Clarke shrewdly brought on Hamilton for a winded and cramping Rutkiewicz in the 74th minute. Indeed, the combined efforts of center backs Rutkiewicz, Hamilton and especially Julius James held the Galaxy attackers at bay.
“It’s interesting, usually Open Cup games are really fast and physical,” Rogers said. “But I thought this one was a bit slower. Maybe the weather had something to do with it. But give credit to the RailHawks. I thought they did a great job finishing their chances.”
A header by Zardes in the box flew wide in the 86th. A minute later, Ty Shipalane nearly got Carolina a third goal, but his close-range blast was blocked by Rowe. Otherwise, only the final whistle stood between the RailHawks and a fourth-round Cup match against Chivas USA on June 12 in Cary.
“We would have been disappointed if we hadn’t gotten a win tonight because we think we have a lot of guys who are on [MLS level],” Schilawski added. “I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the team they put out tonight and some of our guys who have had MLS experience.”
While the RailHawks may not have expressed surprise at their win, it’s still a victory by a second division side over the reigning MLS champions. Like last year, the Galaxy used this midweek, cross-country U.S. Open Cup match to run out their reservists and younger talent. And like last year, it resulted in their early exit from the Open Cup.
“We’re the busiest team in MLS, so we have to utilize our whole roster,” said Onalfo. “We have reserve games where we have to utilize our roster, and we have U.S. Open Cup games where for our organization that’s a time for our younger players to get minutes.
“If you look at Carolina, they’re a very good team. We scouted them extremely well and know what their strengths are. But they have a lot of experienced guys, and they’re a darn good team.”
“This tournament is very, very important to us and also important to me,” Clarke said. “It’s not just the Open Cup, it’s Lamar Hunt’s Open Cup. That’s someone who I worked for, our president [Curt Johnson] is here and worked for him. It’s someone who gave us all a start in this game, and without people like him we wouldn't be here in the shape we’re in today.”
The RailHawks returns to league play this weekend with a road trip to face the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. On Wednesday, June 12, Carolina hosts Chivas USA in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup, a rematch of the RailHawks’ Open Cup loss last year.
But before turning their attention to another MLS opponent, the RailHawks and their manager will pause to enjoy vanquishing the Galaxy yet again.
“It’s good when you get an opportunity to play against a team from MLS,” Clarke said. “The boys relish that opportunity. We have some very, very good players, and we went out and played well tonight. I thought we deserved to win.”