Pablo Campos takes on all comers during Carolina RailHawks 4-1 defeat of FC Edmonton
  • Rob Kinnan Photography
  • Pablo Campos takes on all comers during Carolina RailHawks 4-1 defeat of FC Edmonton

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY — It is no small irony that on the Carolina RailHawks’ “Faith and the Family” promotion night, the weather around WakeMed Soccer Park felt as hot as Hades. However, Saturday’s 100°F temperature would turn out to be a decisive home field advantage for the hosts over their Canadian opponents, FC Edmonton.

Edmonton (7-6-4) faded badly in the heat, and the RailHawks (13-2-2) turned the game into a 4-1 rout on three second-half goals. The win showed the RailHawks recapturing their form after a sluggish road trip earlier this month. Not coincidentally, the disappointing results away to Edmonton and NSC Minnesota immediately followed the departure of defender and team captain Brad Rusin for Denmark’s HB Køge.

But the RailHawks’ return to form last night also coincides with speculation anew about the future prospects for strike partners Pablo Campos and Etienne Barbara, as well as head coach Martin Rennie.

First, there was an entertainingly scrappy game on the field. Familiarity has certainly bred some contempt between the teams, as evidenced by chippy play, five cautions and repeated outbursts that ran emphatically afoul of the spirit of “Faith and the Family” night.

The RailHawks came out firing from the opening whistle, outshooting the Eddies 9-3 in the first half. After knocking on the door through the first half, Carolina finally broke through in the 37th minute when Pablo Campos gathered a long ball banged forward by defender Cory Miller, who was starting in place of the suspended John Krause. Campos not only took possession along the right wing but — in what can only be described as a modern miracle — exhibited a burst of speed heretofore unseen from the lumbering Brazilian striker. Campos raced past the Edmonton defense and into a 1-v-1 with Edmonton goalkeeper Rein Baart, finishing with a blast across the face of the keeper into the left netting. The goal was Campos’ first since May 28, a 7-game span.

Etienne Barbara nearly doubled the lead in the 43rd minute when his deft curling shot atop the penalty box grazed the top of the crossbar.

Tempers flared between the clubs on their way to the locker rooms for halftime, and the ill-will carried over to the second half, coming to a head in the 61st minute when Barbara made a meal of a hard foul by Edmonton’s Dominic Oppong. Carolina’s Kupono Low raced in, shoving and otherwise gesticulating for the referee to send Oppong off. Campos and even RailHawks keeper Brad Knighton go into the act before the sides were separated and the referee showed Oppong a yellow card.

“Their game is a talking game,” Campos said. “[Soccer’s] not a talking game — it’s a playing game. You’ve got to show it on the field. They like to shove, they like to hit you, they like to say you’re a terrible player, etc. We don’t get into that — we just play.”

In the 68th minute, Nick Zimmerman sent another ball forward to an onside Barbara, who veered right to draw the defense before crossing the ball over to Campos. Campos cleverly chipped the ball over a rushing-out Baart before maneuvering around the keeper for an easy put-away into the open goal. It was Campos’ eighth goal and Barbara’s league-leading eighth assist of the season.

With players and the crowd of 3,034 all waning from the heat, the final 10 minutes would bring an unlikely scoring barrage. It started in the 81st, when Campos sent a cross into the box off the right flank that found Edmonton defender Paul Hamilton, whose outstretched leg deflected the ball past Baart for an own goal.

In the 84th minute, an Edmonton cross into the box found Daniel Antoniuk, who two-touched the ball over to Shaun Saiko for a 14-foot score. Just two minutes later, however, Carolina’s Brian Farber chipped a ball over the top of the defense to a streaking and suspiciously offside Barbara, who charged unabated at Baart before crushing the ball past the keeper’s head for his league-leading 15th goal and the final 4-1 tally.

“Farber played me a great ball,” Barbara recalls. “I beat the offside, and after playing the ball over to Pablo for his second goal, I guess I decided to be more selfish…I needed a goal, and it’s good to be back [home].”

RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie said that despite their early season success, his team came into Saturday’s match feeling they still had something to prove.

“After winning 10 straight games and then going on the road where we lost one and tied one, a lot people were questioning us a little bit,” said Rennie. “We used that as motivation to bounce back. A lot of people were looking to see how we would do tonight, and I think we gave a good answer.”

Rennie also credited not just the Carolina heat, but his team’s fitness.

“The weather benefited us a lot tonight,” Rennie observed. “Last week in Edmonton it was cold; I was wearing a track suit and jacket.” In that game, the chilly Canadian temps and synthetic, color-coded football turf helped Edmonton come from behind playing a man down to draw with Carolina 1-1.

“We’re used to training in this [heat] everyday, usually in the morning when it’s burning hot,” Rennie said. “And, I’d be amazed if there’s a fitter team than us in the whole country…I mean the whole country, not just our league.”

With Carolina finally appearing to adjust to the loss of Rusin, the transient nature of lower division American soccer was brought further to bear during post-match interviews. Asked about his uneven recent play, Campos disclosed that he had been distracted by an offer to leave the RailHawks for another club overseas. Barbara later revealed that the club is in Iran and that offer was extended to both he and Campos as a package deal.

“It started with Pablo’s agent promoting him, and they showed the team [in Iran] videos of us,” Barbara explained. “The coach asked for us together. It was a very, very good offer financially, but we didn’t know how it would be living in Iran.”

Campos and Barbara eventually turned down the offer, and Campos says that he’s happy to be staying in Carolina. While Barbara shares his teammate’s contentment, the siren song of greater glory still echoes in his head.

“July has another week [before the end of the MLS transfer window],” Barbara observes. “We’re not going to Iran, but I don’t know what might happen. I wish to finish the season with [Carolina]…Life is too short, and I know a team like this is not easy to find. I’m very honored to be part of this team, and there’s only 2-3 months to go. I wish to play at a higher level, but I also wish to finish the season here.”

Great success for a lower division soccer team necessarily brings with it greater opportunities for the team’s players, coaches and staff. Martin Rennie’s teams have finished first or second in their respective league over each of his six seasons as a manager at every level of American soccer below Major League Soccer. At age 36 and in the final year of this three-year contract with the RailHawks, it is natural to expect opportunity to knock on the Scotsman’s door.

Rennie has spoken about his managerial ambitions on several occasions, most recently during an interview published last month by The Herald newspaper in Glasgow, Scotland. (The article ran in the paper’s print edition but was not posted online.)

“I really like where I am, the facilities are amazing and it’s a really nice place to live,” Rennie told The Herald. “But I am ambitious and want to continue to develop. There are some opportunities in the MLS and some in England for me but I just need to take my time and make the right decision. You don’t want to leave something that’s good but you also don’t want to look back in years to come and regret not taking the chance either.”

One strong possibility came to light this week after the soccer blog Soccer by Ives floated a report via Twitter that Rennie is a frontrunner for the Montreal Impact’s head coaching position for their debut season in MLS next year.

Asked about the rumor after Saturday’s match, Rennie was decidedly and conspicuously noncommittal.

“I don’t make comments on things like that because it’s just really speculation,” said Rennie. “I’ve always thought about coaching at the highest level in the future, and at some point I want to do that. And, I’ve had people over the years that I’ve been here talk to me about other opportunities. But, I don’t think it’s ever fair to comment on anything like that because it’s not fair to the other team or our team.”

The “other team” Rennie refers to remains publicly unknown. However, it is worth mentioning that both Montreal and the Vancouver Whitecaps, which is in the midst of its inaugural MLS campaign, are currently being led by interim head coaches after their respective managers were sacked midseason. Both clubs are in the process of searching for new full-time coaches for next year. Rennie has connections to each club, having competed against both organizations during his time at Carolina.

For all of the Carolina RailHawks’ impressive on-field success and increased gate this season, it remains a second-division club with ongoing uncertainty at the ownership and league levels. As Barbara points out, this season is shaping into one to remember for the RailHawks. This season also ends in October.