Floyd Franks approaches his first-half PK during the Carolina RailHawks 3-1 win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in Cary, N.C.
  • Rob Kinnan
  • Floyd Franks approaches his first-half PK during the Carolina RailHawks’ 3-1 win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in Cary, N.C.

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/CARY—The last time the Carolina RailHawks defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers during the NASL regular season was August 20, 2011, a span of five matches. [The RailHawks did oust the Strikers in the quarterfinals of last season’s playoffs, but such nitpicking doesn’t make for a punchy lede.] That skid ended Saturday night in Cary, as Carolina hung three goals on the Strikers for their third consecutive visit to WakeMed Soccer Park for a 3-1 win.

It was also the fourth straight, and fifth out of the last six, games between Carolina and Fort Lauderdale at WakeMed Park that a Railhawk notched a brace. Coming on Latin Fest night, it’s oddly coincidental that Brian Shriver, the only Spanish-speaking RailHawk who took the field, scored those two goals. Of course, the fact that that lone Spanish speaker is also Anglo bespeaks the bedeviling conundrum of trying to attract soccer-mad Hispanics (legal status utterly irrelevant and insulting, Internet trolling notwithstanding) to lower-division American games. Yes, the RailHawks set a club attendance record last month when Pumas de la UNAM came to Cary and Latino fans came out in droves, mostly to cheer the visiting Liga MX club. Of course, one would expect the same fervor from Americans in Paris if, say, the Los Angeles Lakers came to scrimmage Paris-Levallois Basket.

Things are far less reliable when the lure becomes tacos and margaritas, just some of foodstuffs/libations offered Saturday to those willing to fork over a $10 cover to access Latin Fest, located inside a cordoned off area adjacent to the parking lot. The pregame event was part of the grassroots, often targeted marketing that was lacking for the RailHawks in years past but has increasingly become a mainstay during Curt Johnson’s presidency. Inside the metal barricades, the line in front of the taco truck extended long, comprised mostly of hungry Anglos. Meanwhile, the members of the local Latin band Orquesta K’che, the costumed dancers, and the person wearing the Dora the Explorer mascot outfit sometimes appeared to outnumber the Hispanic patrons. Of course, such would be the case with trying to reflexively entice that American in Paris with the promise of cheese-covered Freedom fries and Budweiser.

Of course, that American in Paris—particularly one who hails from North Carolina—might be tempted to frequent a team that includes former N.C. State standout Julius Hodge and ex-Tar Heels Sean May and Jawad Williams, as Paris-Levallois Basket currently does. It’s doubtful local Latinos have that same sort of connection with Señor Shriver, no matter how well he plays soccer or trills his Rs.

Still, 3,761 patrons of sundry ethnicities gathered together Saturday at WakeMed Park, and while that attendance is three-quarters last week’s home opener, it exceeds all but four regular season home matches last season. What they enjoyed was a typical RailHawks-Strikers match: entertaining, fast-paced and lots of offense.

The Strikers struck first in the 11th minute, when midfielder Jemal Johnson took a pass from Pecka just outside the box. Kupono Low mysteriously backed away and Austen King neglected to close Johnson down as the pass came in. Johnson obliged by turning and slotted a left-footed shot beyond the reach of diving RailHawks’ goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald and into the far netting.

“I think we just gave [Johnson] too much space,” Fitzgerald recalled. “We let him get his head up and take his time and get a good shot off, and he put it side netting. Looking back on it, we want to close that space a little bit quicker.”

After a succession of fumbled chances by Carolina, their opening score came in the 27th minute in confusing fashion. Off a set piece, the ball was played over to Austin da Luz near the top of the box. Da Luz cut loose a blast that struck the hand of Fort Lauderdale’s Darnell King. That deflection fell to an offsides Zack Schilawski, who put back an apparent goal. Referee Daniel Fitzgerald conferred with the linesman, his flag raised, and came away awarding a penalty kick to Carolina for the handball and issuing a yellow card to Mark Anderson for dissent. RailHawks’ captain Floyd Franks stepped to the spot and blasted home the equalizer.

Although the official’s decision appeared sound, the episode left Strikers’ gaffer Daryl Shore fuming.

“I know exactly what I saw,” Shore said. “I saw the referee call handball, and then I saw the linesman raise his offsides flag. So, the referee decided that he’s going to give the handball before the offsides, so it’s a penalty … I saw the flag go up, I saw the guy shoot the ball and it hits a player in the hand. It’s not like the player put his hand out and went to it. But, you know what? Referees are referees, they make decisions. You got a referee that’s from North Carolina, he refs the game in Carolina. What do you expect? It’s just the way it goes. Gotta take your lumps.”

Daniel Fitzgerald resides in the Raleigh-Durham area and has refereed a number of RailHawks’ matches the past several seasons, including an eight-booking outing last June that contained two dubious yellow cards to send off Amir Lowery. He has also officiated soccer matches across every strata of American professional and collegiate soccer since 1998, including USL, WPS, NASL and MLS. He refereed NASL playoff matches the past two seasons, as well as 2012 U.S. Open Cup quarter- and semi-finals matches.

In the 34th minute, Stahl was called for a penalty after taking down Jordan Graye in the box off a RailHawks’ corner kick. This time, Franks deferred to Shriver, who stepped up and misdirected former teammate and Strikers’ keeper Matt Glaeser for the go-ahead goal.

“I’ve played with Matt for a couple of years, and he knows where I like to go [with my penalty kicks],” Shriver said. “I kind of waited until the last second to see which way he was going to move a little early. I thought I saw him move to his left a little bit, so I tried to just guide it to the other side of the net.”

Shore, however, had a more petulant perspective.

“I guarantee you the second [penalty], if that’s in our box it’s on us also,” Shore sputtered. “You got two guys grabbing each other and tackling each other, and he decides to give the home team the penalty. If that was on the other end, he would have given the home team the defensive call.”

After coming out of intermission tentative and wary of the Strikers’ formidable counterattack, the RailHawks widened the margin in the 58th minute. Shipalane delivered a cross to Shriver in the six yard box, but the UNC alum’s short-range blast was blocked by Glaeser. However, a botched clearance by Shavar Thomas fell back to Shriver, who stuck the sitter for his second score.

“Ty pulled a great ball back, and I was kind of in between whether I wanted to head it or volley it,” Shriver said. “I went to hit it with the instep of my foot and hit it well. Matt [Glaeser] made a great save, and honestly the defender kicked the ball right back to me. I had a wide-open net, but I just directed it back into the goal.”

Nick Zimmerman and his RailHawks fans at WakeMed Soccer Park
  • David Fellerath
  • Nick Zimmerman and his RailHawks fans at WakeMed Soccer Park

During both of Fort Lauderdale’s regular season visits to Carolina last season, a team surrendered two-goal second half leads. So even at 3-1, the outcome was far from settled. But, the RailHawks’ defense held, led by King and Paul Hamilton, who was returning from a one-game suspension. Fitzgerald also made six big saves, which now gives him a league-leading 15 saves to just two goals allowed in three games.

One bit of bitter news for the RailHawks marked the return of Nick Zimmerman to WakeMed Park, albeit on crutches. Zimmerman, who injured his knee while trialing with Sporting KC, recently underwent microfracture surgery, the second procedure since his injury. His estimated return date remains uncertain, with the most optimistic appraisal being August in time for the 2013 NASL Fall season.

For the time being, the win gives the RailHawks (2-1-0, 7 pts.) sole position atop the NASL Spring season standings, while the Strikers (0-1-2, 1 pt.) remains mired at the bottom of the table. With a quarter of the Spring season complete, the RailHawks have a week off before before traveling to face Minnesota United FC. Carolina returns to WakeMed Park on Saturday, May 11 to host the San Antonio Scorpions.