WEB/BAYAMÓN, P.R.—The task couldn’t have appeared steeper for the Carolina RailHawks as they traveled to Puerto Rico to face the ever-daunting Islanders at the recently renovated Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium. The RailHawks had only two road wins this season, both against the cellar-dwelling Atlanta Silverbacks. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico had only dropped one NASL home match this year, a 2-0 loss to the San Antonio Scorpions, a defeat the Islanders had since avenged twice, at home and in Texas. Moreover, the RailHawks were without arguably their two best defenders, center back Gale Agbossoumonde and holding midfielder Amir Lowery, both suspended one game for yellow card accumulation.
However, it’s also that time of the year for Puerto Rico, when a morass of international commitments and Cup competitions intersect to divert resources from the stretch run of league play. To wit: after going to Tampa Bay last Saturday to battle the Rowdies, Puerto Rico traveled to Los Angeles to face the Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday. They then had to fly back to Puerto Rico to take on the RailHawks three nights later. Moreover, the Islanders were also without their holding midfielder, Chris Nurse, also suspended due to accumulated yellow cards (three of them earned while he was a member of the RailHawks earlier this season). And Jonathan Faña, the team’s assists leader, was coming off a hamstring injury and did not start.
Toss in a brand new turf on which the ball now bounces true and the elements were there for the 3-1 RailHawks victory, one of the biggest of the year for the side from Cary. Carolina was paced by two first-half goals from Brian Ackley and Jason Garey, along with Nick Zimmerman’s team-leading 14th goal served up via another late-game assist from Ty Shipalane.
Eschewing the odds against them, the RailHawks strode out the aggressors. Their tenacity reaped dividends in the 20th minute when a Greg Shields header from a corner kick caromed off the crossbar and onto Ackley’s waiting boot. The hero of last week’s win in Atlanta hit home a shot that rattled around the goal before being cleared out for the start of an apparent Islanders counterattack. However, after conferring with the linesman, the referee ruled the ball crossed the line and awarded the goal, giving Carolina the early lead.
Jason Garey entered the match in the 29th minute, spelling an injured Ackley. In the 36th, Brian Shriver found Garey near the top of the box, where the striker dribbled around a lone defender and slotted the ball past Islanders’ keeper Richard Martin into the bottom right netting for a 2-0 that lasted through halftime.
With a potent offense like Puerto Rico pushing forward, it was only a matter of time before the home team got on the board. In the 48th minute, the Islanders broke through Carolina’s besieged back line when Hector Ramos blasted a shot that RailHawks keeper Ray Burse couldn’t corral, drawing Puerto Rico to within a goal.
However, whereas you’d expect the RailHawks—which have already surrendered two-goal leads three times this year—to inevitably surrender the equalizer, tonight’s side held fast despite the eventual entry of both Faña and striker David Foley, who came on for an injured Ramos in the 59th minute as Puerto Rico’s final substitution. Instead, it was super sub Shiplanae who made the final impact. Despite two Islanders trying to corral him along the right wing, Shipalane took his first touch in the 72nd minute, beat his man to the end line and delivered a precise cross to a waiting Zimmerman, who calmly one-touched the ball into goal.
The remainder of the match was highlighted by red cards shown to the Islanders’ Jay Needham in the 77th minute and Garey in the 79th.
Saturday’s win propels Carolina into fourth place in the NASL standings with five games remaining before the playoffs. The RailHawks now sit two points behind third-place Puerto Rico and five points back of second-place Tampy Bay with a game in hand on both clubs. Carolina returns to WakeMed Soccer Park next Saturday, Sept. 8 for an important home clash against the league-leading Scorpions, last seen embarrassing the RailHawks 8-0 in San Antonio on July 28.