Add in that the Durham Bulls are completing the Governors’ Cup Championship Series on the road against the Pawtucket Red Sox, and what ever is a Triangle sports fan to do?
While there’s not much football to choose from, there’s plenty of top-flight futball kicking around all weekend beginning Friday evening. First, the Duke Men’s Soccer team (2-1-1) hosts Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. at Koskinen Stadium in Durham. However, perhaps the marquee match of the weekend is down the road in Chapel Hill, where No. 2 North Carolina (2-0-1) hosts No. 18 Maryland (1-2-1). The Tar Heels and Terrapins have combined to win four of the last five ACC Men’s Soccer Tournaments. Both schools are again expected to vye for the conference crown this season, Maryland’s last as a member of the ACC.
North Carolina is paced thus far by junior transfer Tyler Engel, who has three goals in his debut three games as a Tar Heel. Meanwhile, Maryland is led by senior forward and Hermann Trophy candidate Patrick Mullins. Friday’s match is the first time since 2008 both teams will not be ranked in the top-5 when going head-to-head, a span of four seasons and six games. Kickoff at Fetzer Field is 7 p.m.
N.C. State gets in on the action Saturday evening with a battle of undefeateds. The Wolfpack men’s team (3-0-0) hosts No. 9 Clemson (4-0-0) in a preview of next Thursday’s gridiron clash between the same schools. N.C. State is led in scoring by Alex Martinez and Clement Simonin, who have one goal and one assist each this season. Meanwhile, the Tigers’ Thomas McNamara has four goals and two assists. Match time is 7 p.m. at Dail Soccer Field.
Meanwhile over at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, there’s a pivotal pro soccer tilt Saturday between the Carolina RailHawks and Tampa Bay Rowdies. Carolina and Tampa Bay are tied atop the North American Soccer League Fall Season table after a Paul Hamilton stoppage-time own goal gave the Rowdies a home victory over the RailHawks last Saturday. Carolina was attempting to win their first road game this year, but instead it set a more ignominious mark: its first back-to-back losses of 2013. However, the RailHawks hasn’t lost a game in Cary this year, and the team will need all three points this weekend to keep pace in the NASL standings. The RailHawks continues to be led by Brian Shriver and his league-leading 12 goals. The rough and ready Rowdies will feature Georgi Hristov (9 goals), Luke Mulholland (6 goals, 5 assists) and former RailHawk Etienne Barbara, Carolina’s career goals leader, who was acquired by Tampa Bay from Minnesota United FC last month. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. back in Chapel Hill, the top-ranked UNC Women’s Soccer team (7-0-0) renews their rivalry with No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1-0). The Fighting Irish, in its first year as a member of the ACC, opened conference play Thursday with a 3-1 win over N.C. State in Raleigh. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels’ 2-1 victory last night over No. 22 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg was the 750th win in Anson Dorrance’s illustrious UNC coaching career. Following North Carolina’s 26 NCAA Women’s College Cup appearances (and 21 championships), the school with the second-most Cup appearances is Notre Dame with 12, leading to three championships, the last being in 2010.
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.
Last year, a promising start to Shriver’s RailHawks debut—including a four-goal turkey shoot against PSA Elite in the second round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup—was eventually stymied by a rash of injuries that hampered his on-field production. Ultimately, Shriver finished the 2012 season with five league goals, far behind the team-leading 15 netted by Nick Zimmerman.
When the RailHawks faces Minnesota United FC this Saturday at 7 p.m., a revived Shriver will take the WakeMed Soccer Park pitch. Shriver leads the NASL this year with 11 goals in just 14 matches, an average of 0.78 goals per game. That average is higher than both Etienne Barbara’s RailHawks single-season record in 2011 (20 goals in 29 matches, 0.69 gpg) and Pablo Campos’ NASL scoring record in 2012 (21 goals in 30 matches, 0.7 gpg).
Campos and Barbara, the dynamic scoring duo for the RailHawks in 2011, reunited in Minnesota for the 2013 Spring Season. However, Barbara’s contentious, disappointing stay there ended earlier this month when he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Meanwhile, Campos has managed six goals this season, fourth-most in the league but a far cry from last year’s record-setting output as a member of the San Antonio Scorpions.
Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Shriver continues to reap the benefits of renewed health and formations that have shifted the traditional midfielder off the wings and into a forward position. Moreover, with crafty wingers like Ty Shipalane, Austin da Luz, Cesar Elizondo and Enzo Martinez drawing defenders out wide, Shriver has been left to roam in open spaces and utilize his deft touch to convert services into scores—only three of Shriver’s goals have been unassisted.
Indeed, Minnesota United has already acutely felt Shriver’s sting this year. When Minnesota last visited Cary on June 22, Shriver dashed the visitor’s fleeting Spring Season title hopes with two goals in the final five minutes to give Carolina a 3-2 victory. Coincidentally, the third RailHawks goal that evening was scored by Floyd Franks, who was traded to Minnesota last month and will make his return to Carolina this Saturday as a member of the opposition.
With a dearth of pure ball strikers to choose from, it appears the RailHawks’ fortunes this Saturday and beyond will continue to rest on Shriver’s bountiful boot.
Other RailHawks notes:
• As previously reported via Twitter, Bryan Arguez—the midfielder Minnesota sent to Carolina in the recent trade for Floyd Franks—was mutually released from his RailHawks contract last week for what club officials would only categorize as “personal reasons.” No further details are available at this time.
• On Thursday, Carolina officially acquired midfielder Kenney Walker and defender Bryan Gaul on loan from the LA Galaxy. Oddly, both Walker and Gaul were just loaned to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers four weeks ago, only to be recalled by the Galaxy this week and re-loaned to the RailHawks. Both Gaul and Walker have recent history at WakeMed Soccer Park with the Galaxy, Gaul during their 2012 U.S. Open Cup loss to the RailHawks and Walker as part of this year’s Open Cup loss to Carolina.
In the end, the club from New York, New York left Cary, NC with little town blues, suffering a 3-0 defeat from the RailHawks. It’s the first loss this season by a Cosmos franchise trying to make a brand new start of it; it’s the first competitive loss by a New York Cosmos team since September 15, 1984.
The unexpected star of this show, however, was referee Mark Kadlecik. Like a singer loosening up his pipes, Kadlecik set the tone just two minutes into the match when he demonstrably admonished RailHawks manager Colin Clarke for dissent. By the time the first half was completed, Kadlecik had shown seven yellow cards and sent off two players, New York’s Joseph Nane in the 44th minute and Carolina’s Austin da Luz in the 45th.
The second booking of da Luz, the RailHawks’ team captain, was particularly galling as it came during stoppage time after a hard challenge committed in the Cosmos’ backfield with Carolina holding a two-goal lead and a man advantage.
“There’s no excuse,” Clarke said. “You've got to be smart. We’re up a man with two minutes to go to halftime. Go down to the other side of the field, just get out of the way, don’t put yourself in that position. Do not give the referee any opportunity to pull out his red card.”
Meanwhile, Carolina’s two-goal lead was initiated in the 8th minute. Ty Shipalane, returning to the RailHawks’ starting lineup for the first time since June 16, keyed a break by driving through the Cosmos’ defense before playing a nicely weighted through ball ahead to Zack Schilawski. Recovering from a heavy touch, Schilawski then centered the ball to Brian Shriver, who converted the put-away.
Shriver struck again in the 28th minute, intercepting a wayward Cosmos back pass before rounding New York goalkeeper Kyle Reynish and depositing into the open goal for a 2-0 advantage the RailHawks took into halftime.
After intermission, the match settled into a back-and-forth dance, a surprising turn since games between teams down to 10 men each tend to become wide open affairs. However, the players appeared gun shy from the deluge of fouls and bookings.
The Cosmos squandered a number of promising opportunities, including a 20-yard free kick that Marcos Senna sailed over goal. The lone second-half score occurred after Cosmos defender Hunter Gorskie tripped Cesar Elizondo in the box, drawing a penalty. Second-half sub Brian Ackley hammered home the PK to account for the final score … but not before Kadlecik sent New York’s Sebastian Guenzatti off a few minutes later with a straight red card for a reckless tackle that left Elizondo (temporarily) twitching on the turf like Apollo Creed after getting knocked out by Ivan Drago. And for good measure, the referee also dismissed Cosmos’ assistant coach Alecko Eskandarian for his remonstrance.
Cosmos manager Giovanni Savarese declined to comment on the officiating, but Clarke had no such qualms.
“It was disappointing that [the referee] had to have such a factor on the game, because it wasn’t that type of game," Clarke observed. "He needed to do a better job of reffing.”
The match was a bit of role reversal for the RailHawks, which has made a habit this year of dominating games statistically without converting their copious chances into goals. Tonight, the Cosmos held 59 percent possession, outshot Carolina 11-5, and earned 10 corner kicks to zero for the RailHawks.
However, it was Carolina that netted three goals and goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald who earned his second consecutive home clean sheet. Shriver’s brace gives him a league-leading 11 goals this year.
“We took our chances, something that we’ve talked about from the Spring season to this season,” Clarke said. “We were creating them but not taking them, and that probably cost us the Spring Season title. But tonight, there can be no arguments. We knew we’d create chances, and we got the first goal, which is always big.”
“It was a game in which the team that knew how to capitalize on opportunities ended up winning,” Savarese said. “There were little situations that allowed the game to change, and unfortunately our two mistakes put us in difficulty in the first half.”
The win keeps the RailHawks as A-number-one, top of the list in the NASL Fall Season standings. In the meantime, start spreading the news: Carolina returns to action next Saturday, August 24 when it hosts Minnesota United FC.
I’m referring, of course, to the Carolina RailHawks, which opened the NASL Fall Season with a 1-0 home victory over FC Edmonton. There were a few differences between the RailHawks’ return and the reboot of the New York Cosmos occurring on the same night in Hempstead, N.Y. While the Cosmos rung the bell to close the New York Stock Exchange Friday afternoon, the RailHawks rung the dinner bell for their annual Taste of the Triangle promotion. The Cosmos trotted out the likes of Pelé and Carlos Alberto, but Carolina ushered back immediately impactful players like Ty Shipalane and Julius James, both coming off injuries that cut short their Spring seasons, as well as MLS loanee Enzo Martinez. The Cosmos’ revival was covered by a brigade of Gotham’s press corp; the RailHawks’ press box was populated by media triumvirate. And while the Empire State Building was awash in Cosmos green, WakeMed Soccer Park was just awash from a summer squall that flooded its pitch, illuminated the Carolina sky and delayed the start of the match for two hours.
However, the deluge once again gave WakeMed Park's pristine pitch another chance to shine. Roughly a half-hour after being largely underwater, the field was drained, squeegeed, and fit for play. But, even once the game began, play was halted again after merely six minutes when an electrical surge dimmed half of the stadium’s lights. Once that 20-minute stoppage passed, the restored floodlights illuminated a one-sided RailHawks’ performance that alternated between exciting and workmanlike.