Nearly two weeks ago, Landon Donovan and his LA Galaxy were blanked by the Carolina RailHawks on Field 2 in the fifth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. This afternoon, back on the newly laid Bermuda turf of WakeMed Soccer Stadium, 18-year-old Conor Donovan started at center back for the RailHawks against Puebla F.C., the venerable Mexican club. Donovan’s header goal in the 38th minute gave the RailHawks the early lead, and Carolina held on for a 2-1 win in the midseason friendly.
Today’s international friendly was the first installment of a busy week for the RailHawks. This Wednesday, they host FC Dallas in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Then next Saturday Carolina hosts Indy Eleven in the opening match of the North American Soccer League (NASL) fall season.
With the games coming thick and fast, RailHawks’ manager Colin Clarke fielded a starting XI comprising mostly bench contributors and a trio of one-off non-roster players: goalkeeper Tyler Deric, former Elon product Gabe Latigue and Donovan. Donovan, a member of the Capital Area RailHawks Academy and an incoming freshman at N.C. State, last appeared on WakeMed Stadium in May as part of the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team training camp in Raleigh.
Donovan’s goal came off a RailHawks corner kick by Latigue in the 38th minute. The 6-foot-2 Donovan drove near post and rose above Los Camoteros to deliver a deflection that clipped off the fingertips of Puebla goalkeeper Alfredo Frausto, rattled the underside of the crossbar, then landed across the goal line.
For all the accolades in Donovan's young career, this goal against such esteemable opposition ranks near the top.
“That’s something you dream of,” Donovan said. “I get chills still thinking about it now. The fans were awesome tonight. It was a lot of fun, and it was exciting to score.”
Clearly irritated at their surprise deficit, Puebla came out on their front foot after halftime. A shot from Saul Villalobos in the 53rd minute that bisected two RailHawks defenders sailed just over the crossbar.
Then, three minutes after entering the game, Ty Shipalane doubled Carolina’s advantage. Taking a pass ahead from team captain Nick Zimmerman in the 66th minute, Shipalane blew past his defender, chipped the ball ahead of onrushing Frausto, then calmly deposited the orb into the open net.
“You kind of put [the ball] in space for Ty and let him do the rest,” Zimmerman remarked. “I looked up, he made a good run, and I had acres of space to clip it in there and give him a chance. Credit to him: great touch around the goalie, and then the finish makes me look good.”
Zimmerman, who got his first start of the season today after missing 2013 with a knee injury, came off a minute later. Today’s assist came on the heels of his game-winning assist during the Galaxy game on June 24. With some roster departures and a long fall season looming, Zimmerman is one of the players and team leaders Carolina will need over rest of the 2014 campaign.
“I feel good, and I think the coaching staff is happy with the progress I’ve made,” Zimmerman said. “I think it’s one of those things now where you just want to get out there and play. It feels good to be back on that field.”
Ironically, it was after Clarke ran out his starters in the 67th minute for some tuneup time that Puebla got a goal back. In the 87th minute, a loose ball in the box found the boot of second-half sub Francisco Acuna, who blasted the ball past Deric to ruin the keeper’s clean sheet.
Puebla nearly equalized a minute later when an onside Villalobos blazed a trail to goal. However, his angled shot across the face of Deric bounded wide right to preserve the Carolina victory.
After match, Clarke appeared satisfied with his team’s output.
“Great result, good performance,” Clarke said. “It was great to get back to playing. It’s been almost two weeks since we had a game, so it was good to get back on the field and test out the new surface. Good crowd, enjoyable afternoon.”
The official attendance of 6,155 was split rather evenly between boisterous Latino supporters backing Puebla and RailHawks stalwarts who delighted in the unexpected hometown win.
The news was not all good for Carolina, however. After the match, Clarke confirmed that attempts to resign forward Mike Grella and defender Toni Stahl for the NASL fall season have “probably gone cold now, to be honest.”
“We’ve moved on,” Clarke continued. “They were two guys who were good for us the first half of the season, and we’re disappointed we don’t have them back. But these things happen and we have to move on.”
Carolina’s attention now turns squarely toward this Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup clash with FC Dallas. This is the first time the RailHawks have hosted an Open Cup quarterfinal match since 2007. Moreover, coin flips tomorrow morning at U.S. Soccer headquarters in Chicago will determine whether Carolina would host their Open Cup semifinal game should it defeat FC Dallas this week.
“We’re looking for a big crowd,” Clarke said. “Every time our fans come out and support us it makes a big difference. Hopefully they’ll come out in numbers on Wednesday night.”
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Donovan finally scored a goal at WakeMed Soccer Park. Just not the Donovan you were expecting.