In four straight NASL games—all in the month of June—the Carolina RailHawks have passed the 80th minute of play trailing their opponent. And the RailHawks have won or drawn all four.
The latest Saturday night in Cary was perhaps the sweetest and most important. After going down two goals early to Minnesota United FC, Carolina still found themselves trailing 2-1 heading into the final minutes of full time. But two late goals by Brian Shriver, one in the 86th minute and the game-winner in the 88th, gave the RailHawks a 3-2 comeback victory, setting the stage for a potential Spring championship showdown with the Atlanta Silverbacks next Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park.
With most of their injuries concerns in the past, Minnesota United ran out the formidable squad that made them the consensus preseason league favorites. Pablo Campos, Max Griffin, Bryan Arguez, Miguel Ibarra, Simone Bracalello and others all made the starting XI. The only notable absences were Etienne Barbara, who was on the bench but never entered the game, and goalkeeper Daryl Sattler, who is nursing an injury and didn’t make the trip to Cary.
And, it was Minnesota who stepped onto the WakeMed Park pitch as the early aggressors. In the 4th minute, Bracalello, the team’s goals and assists leader, accepted a pass from Kentaro Takada atop the box, turned and snap shot past a late-reacting Akira Fitzgerald into the far net for the quick 1-0 lead.
In the 10th minute, a long ball from Minnesota keeper Matt Van Oekel rode steady storm winds and sailed over a breaking Pablo Campos. Campos muscled past center back Paul Hamilton and put a strong boot to the bouncing ball, propelling it up and over Fitzgerald for a 2-0 advantage.
Just when it seemed like a third Minnesota goal was imminent and inevitable, the reeling RailHawks got a goal back in the 25th minute. Cesar Elizondo—getting the start for an injured Ty Shipalane—delivered a nicely weighted ball ahead to a streaking Floyd Franks. On his way into the box, Franks was taken down by defender Cristiano Dias. Video replay appears to show the takedown was initiated outside the area. But, referee Geoff Gamble saw otherwise and pointed to the spot, although, oddly, he didn’t access a booking against Dias. Franks converted the PK to pull the score to 2-1.
After conceding, however, Minnesota still pushed forward to reclaim their advantage. In the 34th minute, Bracalello executed a spectacular overhead kick that nearly dipped into the goal before caroming off the crossbar. Four minutes later, a dialed-in Bracalello curled a 30-yard free kick towards the upper 90 that was swatted away by a leaping Fitzgerald for the keeper’s lone save of the game.
Although Carolina outshot Minnesota 12-6 in the first half, the visitors were the dominant side as evidenced by their play and the scoreboard. However, after weathering the initial onslaught, the RailHawks treated the second half as a new lease on life.
“We were ready,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “Mentally, physically, we were ready. We weren’t good the first 15 minutes—with the ball we were fine, but defensively we weren’t good. We didn’t deal with Campos physically. They’re a team that likes to play off Pablo, and we were ready for it. We just didn’t deal with it very well.
“From there I thought there was only one team in it.”
It began in the 55th minute, when Elizondo—who was slotted onto the left flank all game—drove to the end line and delivered a cross that a sliding Zack Schilawski poked just over the goal. In the 64th, Austin da Luz—a left-footer slotted onto the right flank—curled a cross far post to Elizondo, whose diving header was easily gathered by Van Oekel, who had five saves on the night.
The chances began to pile up for the home side, but the finishing remained wanting. An open angled shot by Shriver in the 74th minute was stopped by an out-rushing Van Oekel. In the 76th, Elizondo pushed his own angled attempted wide right.
At this point, a bit of tactical déjà vu took place. Ten days ago, Chivas USA used all three of their allotted substitutions by the 66th minute in the face of the Carolina humidity. Meanwhile, RailHawks manager Colin Clarke held fast, saving two of his subs until after the 80th minute. As a result, Carolina was the fresher side entering extra time on their way to a 3-1 win.
Those rested RailHawks legs undoubtedly aided another late game surge. It started in the 86th, when Kupono Low settled a clearance about 30 yards out and calmly chipped a pass over the defense to an arguably onsides Shriver, who made clever work of the ball mid-flight and slotted it across the face of Van Oekel to tie the game 2-2.
Two minutes later, Van Oekel got his fingertips on a promising shot by da Luz. However, that set up a RailHawks corner kick that second-half sub Ciaran O’Brien delivered near post. Shriver cut in front of Takada and got a touch on the ball, misdirecting into that fertile far netting for the game winner, sending the already boisterous 3,350 fans in attendance into fits of delirium.
It was a goal that Shriver said didn’t come by happenstance.
“We had looked at them all week and seen some of their defensive set plays,” Shriver explained. “We worked on a near-post run for our corner, getting across the first guy near the post and trying to redirect it back towards the back post. Ciaran whipped in a great ball, and I was able to get front of the guy and steer it towards goal. I got the slightest touch on it, and that was enough.”
A distraught Lagos was at a bit of a loss to explain his team’s late-game collapse.
“It’s tough to swallow,” Lagos said. “You start out so well, and we thought we prepared really well for the game. For some reason, we didn’t quite play as well after we got up, to be honest. In the second half, we really couldn’t create any tempo for us, and when you do that a team can get back into the game and win it.”
The RailHawks outshot Minnesota by a whopping 22-10 margin, including 8-3 on-target. Carolina also had 11 corner kicks to only two for Minnesota. It was an impressive output for a RailHawks squad that was playing without Shipalane, the team’s most important offensive playmaker, and Julius James, arguably its best defender.
Asked to explain his team’s second-half turnaround, Shriver immediately referenced the continuing contributions of Elizondo, the quicksilver Costa Rican and Shipalane’s current midfield replacement.
“We were able to get the ball out a lot to Cesar wide on the left,” Shriver said, “and he was just dicing his guy up all second half, creating opportunities for us in the box.”
In truth, the RailHawks also benefitted from a few referee decisions, including the Franks penalty, Shriver’s onsides equalizer and a Campos offsides call in the first half that negated another 1-v-1 opportunity for the Brazilian striker.
“I think the rhythm of the game also got dictated by some referee calls that gave them free kicks in dangerous spots,” Lagos added. “For some reason we weren’t getting those calls, and that lost us some possession late in the game. Again, when that happens they started getting some chances and whipping balls in the box, and we lost our shape.”
Before then, however, the RailHawks must take a midweek flight to Utah to face Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It's a game that seemed like an afterthought in the afterglow of Saturday's result and the prospect of a Spring championship next week. Asked how he might prepare for Wednesday's cup tie in light of a looming league match, Clarke joked, "I’m going to just do a Bruce [Arena] and not bother to go.”
Indeed, after Saturday’s win over Minnesota, the excitement level of the RailHawks players felt more palpable than their previous comeback results. Even the grin on Clarke’s face appeared a bit wider.
“This wasn't the first round of a playoff,” Clarke explained. “This was to get us to next week to have a chance to win the championship. And as the results turned out, that’s what is going to happen. We get a chance to play in front of our home fans next Saturday night to play for a championship. A lot of teams win championships but they never do it in front of their home crowd. We get a chance to do it in front of the supporters that this year have been absolutely magnificent.”