WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Both the Carolina RailHawks and Tampa Bay Rowdies continued individual unbeaten streaks in the wake of their 2-2 draw Saturday night in Cary. But only one team appeared in a celebratory mood.
The Rowdies (2-5-0, 11 pts.) extended their overall unbeaten run to nine games, which now includes four wins and five draws. Meanwhile, the RailHawks (3-2-2, 11 pts.) ran their home unbeaten streak to 13 matches, with 11 wins and 2 draws over both NASL and U.S. Open Cup play in 2013. However, each team surrendered leads Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park, and by leaving two points on the field, both dropped out of a first-place tie in the NASL Fall Season standings.
It was the RailHawks, however, that felt most deflated. After surrendering a stoppage-time own goal last weekend to lose at Tampa Bay, Carolina was looking to recoup three points in a home turf rematch. And after a first half that saw the RailHawks grab a one-goal lead thanks to some precision passing and attack, the home side appeared well on their way.
Carolina took 11 shots in the opening half, putting 10 of them on-target. The one that creased the net came in the 30th minute. Enzo Martinez—making the start at forward—played a ball across the box to Ty Shipalane, who unleashed a blast in the box that clanged off the crossbar and back into the area. Martinez attempted a follow-up shot that deflected off Rowdies defender Frankie Sanfillipo and ended up back at Shipalane’s feet, who took a touch and calmly converted his second attempt into the inside netting.
The RailHawks squandered a terrific opportunity to double their lead in the 54th minute. An onside Brian Shriver won the race to a through ball that left him one-on-one with Rowdies keeper Diego Restrepo. Shriver slowly sized up the keeper, but Restrepo held his ground. Shriver—who struggled all evening—eventually took the path of most resistance by attempting to shoot through Restrepo. Not surprisingly, the keeper stoned the league’s leading goalscorer to hold the deficit at one.
Keyed by defender Julius James and the diving saves of goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, the RailHawks’ defense held firm until a calamitous flurry starting in the 72nd minute. Off a counterattack, Georgi Hristov centered a cross off the right wing to a driving Evans Frimpong, who launched his half volley into the back of the net. Two minutes later, another counterattack allowed Luke Mulholland to deliver his own cross off the right, this time to the waiting head of Jay Needham and 2-1 lead for visitors.
For RailHawks manager Colin Clarke, the sudden turn of events had as much to do with desire as tactics.
“They looked hungrier to get in our box going forward then we did to get back,” Clarke said, “and that’s disappointing.”
With both the RailHawks players and 4,753 fans in attendance visibly stunned, it appeared Carolina was bound for its third consecutive loss and first defeat at home this year. However, this weekend it was the RailHawks’ turn to snag an extra time decider. With the minutes winding down, James pushed ahead into attack and uncorked a blocked shot just outside in the box. The ball caromed over Austin da Luz on the left, who took a touch and slotted his angled equalizer into the right netting.
“I honestly don’t know who hit it to me,” da Luz confessed. “I just know it ended up at my feet. I took a touch on my left and just tried to keep it on frame. [The ball] made it through a lot of people, I think it hit the post and ended up in the back of the net.”
“Most of the time the defense doesn’t recognize the extra defender who goes forward,” James explained. “So, I went up there and luckily a ball fell to my feet at one point and I took the shot. It deflected to Austin da Luz, and him being the great left-footer that he is, he just picked out a corner and put it in there. And I’m very happy about that because training would have been hell this week.”
Actually, training might not be so rosy after all.
“We talk a lot about how good we are and all the good stuff we do,” Clarke fumed. “But, looking at it we need to be better. If we’re going to win this championship right now we need to be better. We need to find ways to put teams away. I don’t think we played well. I don’t think we were great tonight, but we created enough and had opportunities to kill them off and get the second goal and didn’t do it. So, we need to have a really long look at ourselves, what we’re all about going forward.”
In figuring out how to move forward, the RailHawks would do well to appraise their recent past. Saturday’s draw extended Carolina’s winless skid to three games, their longest this year. During that stretch—which includes two losses and last night’s draw—the RailHawks have surrendered six goals.
However, this was immediately preceded by a four-match span to open the Fall Season in which Carolina won three—all clean sheets—and only allowed a single goal during a 1-1 draw at Atlanta.
In the scientific method, one of the three types of variables are independent variables, which are conditions that you change from one experiment to another to account for varying results (or dependent variables). There are several independent variables that could account for the RailHawks’ recent reversal of fortune. Three of Carolina’s four games to open the Fall Season were at home, while two of their latest three were on the road.
Another striking variable is the change at deep-lying midfielder. Following the departure of midfielder Floyd Franks during the NASL midseason break, Clarke inserted Breiner Ortiz—who missed the entire Spring Season with an injury—into the starting XI for the opening four games of the Fall Season. Although Ortiz struggled with passing and possession at times, Carolina only allowed one goal during those four matches.
Beginning with the Aug. 30 contest at Fort Lauderdale, Clarke replaced Ortiz with Kenney Walker, a loanee from the LA Galaxy. With Walker playing every minute since in lieu of Ortiz, Carolina has gone winless and allowed six goals in three games.
When asked for their diagnosis of the RailHawks’ shift in results, a couple of players spoke volumes while attempting to say little. Da Luz, the team’s captain, was purposefully diplomatic, but perhaps inadvertently revelatory.
“If you can figure it out, I’d love to know, too,” da Luz said. “We’ve had some injuries here and there, some personnel changes. It’s always difficult to acclimatize to [those changes]. But, we can stand here and make excuses all day.”
When posed with the same question, James paused a full 14 seconds before attempting an answer, breaking his silence with only nervous chuckling and remarking, “Oh boy, that’s a tough one.” There was clearly something on the tip of his tongue, but he eventually offered a rambling response that even he conceded was “contradictory” in the middle of its delivery.
Still, soccer is a team game, and outcomes are not attributable to a single person or cause. But changes clearly need to be made and fast. The RailHawks have surrendered their spot atop the league table, and four of the team’s next five games are on the road, where it hasn’t won a single game this year.
“This league is very tight; anyone can beat anybody on a given day,” Clarke said. “Maybe we’re not a good as everybody thinks we are. Right now, I’ll be asking questions about our character, whether we have enough character on the team to win the championship. It’s getting to that point in the year when we need to step up and stand up and be counted.”