On the field, Carolina put on a tactical and technical season retrospective: dominating possession, waves of exquisite buildups … and finishing follies. And, it all ends with Brian Shriver saving the day. Ultimately, the RailHawks’ 2-1 victory over the Scorpions was more significant for what it meant than how it was accomplished. The RailHawks finished with the most points (43) over the entire 2013 NASL season. Perhaps more significant, Carolina gave full faith and credit to their home supporters, finishing unbeaten at home over 13 regular season matches and three U.S. Open Cup ties, winning 14 games and tying two.
Yet, the RailHawks also mustered only one road win all year, and the roller-coaster quality of the seven-month regular season was encapsulated by the fact that five starters last night were not among the home-opening starting XI back in April. Indeed, seven players on the gameday roster did not play a single minute for Carolina during the NASL spring season.
Carolina thoroughly commanded the opening 20 minutes, deploying one sortie after another into the attacking third. In just the first 10 minutes, Enzo Martinez scuffed a sure shot in the box, while Kenney Walker clanged another off the left post. In the 21st minute, a short-range pass by Zack Schilawski across the face of goal found a sliding Nick Addlery, but the forward’s deflection was cradled by diving Scorpions goalkeeper Jeremy Vuolo mere millimeters short of crossing the goal line.
As often happens in soccer, however, the RailHawks’ failure to capitalize on opportunities came back to bite them. In the 27th minute, Scorpions striker Sainey Touray maneuvered around defender Jordan Graye before delivering a looping shot off the left wing just outside the box. The golazo sailed over a leaping Akira Fitzgerald into the inside netting.
“I’m a striker, I just tried it,” Touray explained. “It’s always like that when you play forward. Sometimes you just take chances.”
Two minutes after his goal, Touray won the race to a through ball and found himself one-on-one with Fitzgerald. This time, however, the Carolina keeper stoned Touray’s attempt to keep the Scorpions advantage at one.
Touray was once a promising young RailHawk who missed most of the 2010 season with injuries before being released at the start of 2011. He spend the past three seasons with the Harrisburg City Islanders, finishing among USL PRO’s goals and points leaders each year. The Scorpions signed the wiry forward last month, and he remains under NASL contract with San Antonio for 2014 unless he lands a roster spot with the Columbus Crew, who Tourney says owns his MLS discovery rights and where he will train next preseason.
In the meantime, Touray was effusive in his fondness for Carolina.
“It feels good to be back,” said a smiling Touray. “I had a great time here. I didn’t have the opportunity to play because I was hurt the whole season, but they really like me here and I love it here. I have family here, and this team has been a great team since I’ve been here. Last year, I came back on holidays and then I practiced with them. So, it’s always my home.”
An odd sense of tension seemed to envelope the home side, reminiscent of when Carolina failed to garner the home win against Atlanta in June that would have secured the spring season title and hosting rights for next weekend’s Soccer Bowl. Possession became less secure, passes became more wayward, forays in the box became less frequent and shots were even more off target.
And to hear RailHawks manager Colin Clarke tell it, that pressure of finishing atop the overall regular season points tally was by design.
“I made sure they knew that all week,” Clarke admitted. “I wanted to put them under that pressure, wanted to have them deal with it. And they come out and done it, won their first trophy.
“I’ve always likened to a golfer trying to win his first major or a tennis player. Sometimes it takes one, two, three, four, five attempts.”
Yet, by the 60th minute, a legitimate argument could be made that the RailHawks had not played worse soccer at home all year. It was about that time that San Antonio squandered a chance to double their lead. An open shot in the box by Dennis Chin was blocked by Fitzgerald, and Blake Wagner’s putback of the rebound careened off the crossbar.
Carolina’s fortunes finally changed in the 66th minute. Kenney Walker delivered a service into the box, and as Addlery lept for an attempted header, he was pulled down by defender Lyle Martin. The referee pointed to the spot, where Shriver stepped and converted the PK in the 68th to equalize.
A significant duo of substitutions took place soon afterwards. First, San Antonio took off Touray for midfielder Borja Rubiato. Then, Carolina inserted Ty Shipalane for Nick Millington. Although Shipalane would not figure much in subsequent play, the change allowed Schilawski to move to left wing and, more importantly, shifted Shriver from left wing to a more central position.
That move paid off in the 85th minute. A Scorpions clearance found second-half sub Luciano Delbono on the right wing. Delbono’s low cross ricocheted off a couple of Scorpions before falling to Shriver atop the area. Shriver one-touched a left-footer that sailed beyond Vuolo into the upper 90 for the game winner.
“The ball got popped out to [Delbono],” Shriver recalled. “I could see he was going to cross it. I sort of popped back out to the top of the box. I don’t know if it hit one or two of their guys and fell in front of me. For me, I was just trying to smash it on frame.”
Shriver’s brace gives him 15 NASL goals this year, tops in the league. In addition to winning the NASL Golden Boot, Shriver was named team Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year prior to Saturday’s match.
It’s the most goals Shriver has ever scored in a season. He is now out of contract and is looking forward to two things: rest and free agency.
“I feel like I’ve got quite a few more years in me,” Shriver said. “I need a break. It’s been a long season, and I’ve had some nagging injuries the past few weeks. It’d be nice to rest and recover for the next few weeks, and see what happens in the future.
“I love it here, and hopefully things work out. But in the end it is a business, so we’ll see what happens.”
After the match, Clarke appeared outwardly ebullient, for reasons that would soon become even more apparent. But first, the gaffer spoke on how important the team took maintaining their unbeaten home run.
“Our fans have been magnificent this year,” Clarke said. “They keep coming out in great numbers and supporting us. We wanted to finish it right, we wanted to start next season with that record still intact. Everybody knows when they come here they’re not going to get a lot. That’s important to us.”
After the completion of Clarke’s postgame press conference, RailHawks’ president Curt Johnson asked the assembled media if we had any questions for him. The singularity of that inquiry suggested Johnson had something to say, a suspicion that proved accurate when Johnson was asked about Clarke’s status with Carolina for 2014:
“Clearly, from my perspective, Colin has done a very good job,” Johnson began. “Not only this year in terms of having the most points in the league, our home unbeaten run, and the Open Cup. I think both years were very positive for the organization: 2012 beating the Galaxy at home in front of our first real big crowd, and then this year beating the Galaxy again, Chivas [USA] at home. Obviously, a difficult end to the spring, a variety of reasons for that. But, Colin’s done a fantastic job here.
“So our intention recently, as I started looking at it, certainly was to retain him for next year. As a result of hitting a threshold within his contract, his third year is exercised. So, he will be back next year. There’s not really a discussion to be had, per se, because of the clause in his contract related to winning the regular season. So, it kind of takes [away] any conversation, which I don’t think there would have been much of a conversation, quite honestly, because he’s been fantastic. But, you always try to wait until end of the year. You try to assess what’s gone on. But, in terms of both the threshold in his contract and as well as just his overall performance, he’s the right man for the job. I think he’s the right guy to continue our quest at the end of the day to bring home a NASL Soccer Bowl trophy. We’re very proud of what Martin [Rennie] did in 2011 in winning the regular season, and also this year in 2013 winning the regular season, as well. It’s something we can hang our hat on, and certainly Colin’s been a big part of that.”
On the other side, interim Scorpions manager Alen Marcina was disappointed with game’s outcome.
“I think we deserved at least a draw,” Marcina said. “We had a couple of clear opportunities I thought we should have put away. And fair enough, they had some opportunities themselves. That’s sometimes how the game goes.”
Marcina has been coaching for a full-time position with the Scorpions, amassing a 3-1-6 record in his short tenure as manager. When asked about his future with the club, his optimistic response was juxtaposed at that moment with the specter of Howard Cornfield, the Scorpions’ president and general manager, waiting in the rear of the media room to speak with Marcina.
“It’s a good question,” Marcina said. “I feel confident. I was able to turn around a team. They played much better. I don’t think all the results went our way. Tactically, I implemented a brand new system, and the guys did very, very well … I put them in a position to excel, and I look forward to next year to building on that.”
Meanwhile, the RailHawks enjoyed its third straight year of attendance growth, finished with the best overall record in the league, didn't lose a game at home and advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, beating two MLS squads along the way. For winning the regular season crown, five points ahead of the second-place Tampa Bay Rowdies, Carolina lays claim to the 2013 Woosnam Cup
, a supporters-sponsored award named after former NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam that will be bestowed annually to the team that finishes with the best regular season record.
Still, the failure to clinch the spring season title and host the Soccer Bowl next Saturday clearly eats at Clarke, Johnson and the rest of the club.
“The one thing I know is that no format is perfect,” Johnson said, speaking about the split regular season format implemented by the NASL this year. “Clearly, this was a unique year with the Cosmos coming in halfway. I like the split season. I think it has shone a light on our league this year. Obviously, I didn’t like the way the spring season finished, but that wasn’t the format’s part. Obviously, there will always be an asterisk by the Cosmos in 2013. But, you know what, it’s great to have the Cosmos in the league. I think it’s unusual for a team that has the most points not to have a spring championship, fall championship or Soccer Bowl championship.
“There’s some disappointment that we’re not playing next Saturday night and that we don’t have more trophies in the case this year. But, we knew what the format was and we did the best we could with it.”
The offseason looks to be another of upheaval and renewal, nothing new in the lower division professional soccer ranks. Johnson did not have ready list of players under contract for 2014, although approximately eight or nine are already under a club option for next year, including Akira Fitzgerald, Cesar Elizondo and Breiner Ortiz. However, a number of players are out of contract, including Shriver. Clarke says he hopes to resign the bulk of them.
The giant video board erected just this week at WakeMed Soccer Stadium, looming like a monolith behind the south stands, serves as a silent reminder that the work on 2014 has already begun. It’s work that the club hopes will result in more bowls, cups and other assorted soccerware.
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—It’s as if 2013 came full circle for the Carolina RailHawks during their regular season finale against the San Antonio Scorpions Saturday night in Cary. The crowd of 6,015—the largest home attendance since the RailHawks’ win over the LA Galaxy on May 29 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup—was reminiscent of the sizable gates Carolina drew early in the season against the Galaxy, Pumas UNAM and, yes, San Antonio (6,708 saw the RailHawks and the Scorpions at WakeMed Soccer Park on May 11).