Saturday evening in Cary, the RailHawks ground out a workmanlike 1-0 victory over Minnesota United FC. That now makes eight wins and one draw for Carolina out of nine league home matches. In addition, the RailHawks won all three Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup ties played at WakeMed Park, including two victories over Major League Soccer competitors.
Various reasons can account for the RailHawks’ home nest success. Carolina is a talented team that has remained at or near the top of the NASL table all year. But thus far, it also hasn’t snagged a single road win, something you’d expect an overwhelmingly great team to do. Credit also goes to the home atmosphere and supporters, including the 5,201 partisans who came out Saturday night. But, other NASL teams draw larger attendances and still lose the occasional home match.
Others, including RailHawks manager Colin Clarke, observe that WakeMed Soccer Park boasts one of the longest pitches in the league. A field with such length suits a team like Carolina that is built for speed and also likes to play wide on attack.
The truth probably rests in all these factors and more. Regardless, Carolina’s home success has become a storyline for fans and opponents alike.
“This is a tough one for us,” said Minnesota United manager Manny Lagos after Saturday’s loss. “We know this is a tough place to play; Carolina hasn’t lost at home in a long time. We were hoping to break that, and unfortunately we couldn’t do that.”
Although the RailHawks’ lineup against Minnesota was filled with regulars, the team was playing without a couple of key contributors. Team captain Austin da Luz was suspended after being sent off last week against the New York Cosmos, and Enzo Martinez was out with a groin injury. However, Carolina’s bench included a couple of new faces in Kenney Walker and Bryan Gaul, both acquired this week on loan from the LA Galaxy. Walker came on as a second-half substitute and contributed 20 uneventful minutes.
Carolina came out the more confident side at the outset of the match, holding 59 percent of possession and outshooting Minnesota 11-4 in the first half. But, the RailHawks’ goal conversion remained wanting. An apparent Zack Schilawski score in the 19th minute was disallowed for offsides. Carolina had three short-range chances in the 29th minute, but two were blocked and Ty Shipalane’s capper sailed high.
Minnesota’s best first-half chance came in the 27th minute, when a lax Julius James pass in the backfield was intercepted by Pablo Campos, who took the clear path to goal. However, RailHawks goalkeeper rushed out to close down and dispossess the Brazilian striker to stave off the threat.
“Zack got the ball in the middle, picking it up on the break,” Shriver said. “He put Cesar through down the side. I was just trying to get in the box and give [Cesar] an option. He was able to pick his head up and whipped a great ball in. For me, it was just making sure I hit the target.”
It’s heady times for Shriver, who not only leads the league in goals but was handed the captain’s armband in da Luz’s absence. While Shriver says this is the first time in his career he’s ever served as team captain, “it’s [da Luz’s] armband; he’ll have it back next week.”
“He deserved the armband tonight,” Clarke gushed. “The first thing you need to remember with Brian is he works very hard, not only on the field but a lot of what supporters don’t see. He brings it every single day in training. He scores goals in training, his habits are good, his professionalism is very good. He works tirelessly and unselfishly for everybody on the team. And to top it all off he scores goals.”
Still, Minnesota evened out possession during the second stanza and generated a few scoring chances. Their most promising came in the 76th minute, when a diving Fitzgerald saved a 22-yard curling free kick by Kevin Venegas. By game’s end, the offensive-minded RailHawks were eschewing clear attacking lanes and instead choosing to rely on their suddenly sturdy defense.
Indeed, this was one of Carolina’s best team defense efforts in recent memory. James and Paul Hamilton were stout in the back, midfielders Nick Millington and Breiner Ortiz constantly stymied Minnesota’s build-ups, and the rest of the RailHawks buzzed around looking to make mischief. When right back Jordan Graye went down with a second-half injury, center back Kevin Rutkiewicz ably filled-in for him. Last but certainly not least, Fitzgerald dove, punched and leapt his way to a third consecutive home clean sheet.
“Colin [Clarke] did a great job at the beginning of the season to get a bunch of guys that really didn’t play together to gel,” said James. “Now that we’ve had more time together, the gel is coming.”
Meanwhile, Minnesota continues their own midseason makeover. During the July break, the team traded away tempestuous striker Etienne Barbara to Tampa Bay for Mike Ambersley, and it swapped midfielder Bryan Arguez to Carolina for Floyd Franks. Both Ambersley and Franks came on as second-half substitutes on Saturday.
“It’s a new season and it’s early, and we’re still finding our feet with the new guys and personalities,” Lagos said. “We are in this point where we have to continue to find our culture to be successful, and we’re not quite there yet. I think that consistency showed a little bit on the field tonight. But, I think we’re encouraged by the moves we made and very encouraged by where the locker room is heading.”
The RailHawks are now three points ahead of the second-place New York Cosmos atop the NASL Fall Season standings. However, after opening the fall with three out of four matches at home, Carolina now hits the road for two straight weeks, beginning with a trip to Florida to face the Fort Lauderdale Strikers next Friday.
“We will win a game on the road, I promise,” James proclaimed. “It will happen. Chemistry is coming together. We know what we need to do, we’re hungry, and we got a smack on the face by not winning the [spring] championship. So we’re a hungry team now, we have a monkey on our back, and we want to win.”
• Earlier this week, midfielder Ciaran O'Brien requested and was granted a release from his RailHawks contract to pursue other options elsewhere, according to club officials.