Daniel Paladini celebrates his playoff series-winning goal over the Minnesota Stars
  • Carolina RailHawks
  • Daniel Paladini celebrates his playoff series-winning goal over the Minnesota Stars

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY — When it rains, it pours, and the number of droughts that ended with the Carolina RailHawks’ first-round playoff-clinching 4-0 victory over the NSC Minnesota Stars must have left many wondering whether the construction of an ark might be in order.

Actually, a raucous crowd of 2,556 enjoyed an evening of pleasant soccer-viewing weather. What Minnesota could not weather was an untimely red card late in the first half and a relentless RailHawks’ attack that ensued.

The result saw Carolina’s first-ever playoff goal and victory. It also marked the end of 334 minutes of scoring futility against Minnesota and the first win over the Stars in four matches this season. One RailHawk scored his first goal this year, while another continued his reluctant role as the team’s “super sub.”

RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie made several strategic lineup changes from Wednesday’s nil-nil draw at Minnesota, inserting Floyd Franks, Amir Lowery and Etienne Barbara into the starting XI in place of Daniel Paladini, Marques Davidson and Gregory Richardson.

“The game plan was to get the ball out wide as quick as we can, to switch sides, and get crosses in as low as possible because [Minnesota goalkeeper] Joe [Warren] would come out and get them,” said Paladini. “We weren’t going [to be able] to break them down through the middle, and that’s why we decided to go with our starting lineup because we knew we could get the ball out wide and whip it in and have our chances there.”

However, the beginning this match began the same as the previous three—with a dumbfounded RailHawks offense stymied by a quick, disciplined Minnesota defense. With nine and sometimes 10 players behind the ball, Carolina struggled to manufacture chances. The most promising came in the 20th minute, when Barbara crossed the ball to a streaking Josh Gardner, whose volley was swatted away by Warren. Meanwhile, shots by Minnesota’s Simone Bracalello in the ninth and 34th minutes were stopped by Carolina goalkeeper Eric Reed.

Minnesotas Andres Arango has his hands full with the RailHawks Floyd Franks
  • Carolina RailHawks
  • Minnesota’s Andres Arango has his hands full with the RailHawks’ Floyd Franks

Then, the 36th minute brought the fateful moment of the match and series. Franks dribbled around Stars captain Andres Arango and initiated a breakaway into the attacking third. A beaten Arango turned and grabbed a handful of Franks’ jersey, taking down the midfielder. During the scrum that followed, Arango either attempted and perhaps landed a head-butt to Franks as players from both squads descended into the melee.

After showing Arango a yellow card for the professional mugging of Franks, referee Carlos Sandoval conferred with his linesmen long enough for many in the stands to take a bathroom break, return some emails, complete the day’s crossword puzzle, catch-up on their laundry and change the oil in their cars.

After four-going-on-40 minutes, Sandoval broke huddle and—after flashing a yellow card to Carolina’s Tom Heinemann for, well, being Tom Heinemann—gave Arango a straight red and sent him off for violent conduct.

“Floyd Franks was breaking clean through and we had a good chance, and [Arango] pulled him back, so it was a professional foul,” remembered Rennie. “I guess people were frustrated, there was a coming together of a lot of bodies, and Arango did put his head forward, which you can’t do. It’s unusual that the linesman comes on and helps to make a decision, but that happened and it was a big moment for us.”

As Gardner’s ensuing free kick bounced off Warren’s mitts and Brad Rusin failed to convert the rebound, Minnesota manager Manny Lagos went berserk, spending the final four minutes of the half screaming at Sandoval, the fourth official, the RailHawks’ mascot Swoops and anyone else within earshot. The referee, clearly pining for sanctuary, added only two minutes of stoppage time. Meanwhile, Cary’s Finest — already familiar with the ending to this book from the June 28th Montreal match at WakeMed Park — slowly made their way to the pitch, ready to intercept Lagos before he could reach Sandavol once the referee blew the halftime whistle.

With the wind of a man advantage at their backs, the RailHawks returned from the dressing room in attack mode. However, it was Minnesota who manufactured the early chances. Kentaro Takada crossed the ball into Devin Del Do, whose shot was deflected just left of the goal. Off the resulting corner, a header by Ely Allen was barely warded away by Gardner.

“Give a lot of credit them,” said Paladini. “[I]f you watch them on film, they are very hard to break down—they’re one of the best teams at that and actually underrated…We were fortunate to get that red card, but even then, it’s still hard to break them down. There were still nine guys in the back.”

Then, in the 54th minute, Paladini came on for Franks. Last week, Rennie’s suspect decision to take off an effective Gregory Richardson for Barbara turned golden when Barbara went on to score the eventual game and conference title winner. Tonight, the question wasn’t the decision to bring on Paladini, but instead why the reliable scorer did not start to begin with.

“Because [Minnesota] plays so tight in the midfield between the back four and the midfield four, there’s not a lot of space there, and that’s where [Paladini] is best at,” explained Rennie. “I thought the game might open up in the second half, and then he could come on and exploit that space. You don’t always get it right, but that was exactly what happened and it made a big difference.”

A big difference, indeed. After the teams exchanged missed opportunities—including a shot by Minnesota’s Allen that bounced off the base of the left post—Barbara delivered a cross in the 64th minute that was deflected outside the top of the box. Paladini caught the rebound off the outside of his right foot, sending a volley that curled right just inside the right post and past a helpless Warren.

“[The ball] popped up and the only thing I could do was reach and try to volley it” said Paladini. “I’m just glad I put it on frame…I just hit it well and it went into the corner.”

With victory in sight and their playoff/Minnesota scoreless streaks broken, the floodgates opened up for the RailHawks, who took full advantage of a man-down Stars squad forced to push forward. In the 71st minute, Paladini sent in a cross that caught Gardner’s left boot on its way into the inside netting and a 2-0 lead. “Daniel played [the ball] across. Matt [Watson] was unselfish and dummied it, and I controlled it and had time to put it in the far corner,” said Gardner.

In the 84th, it was that man Paladini sending another cross into the box, where Lowery took the ball on the fly and blasted it past Warren for his first goal of the year.

The final line for Paladini on the night: 36 minutes, one goal, two assists. Oh, and a celebratory yellow card, just for good measure.

Finally, insult was added to elimination in the 88th minute when Minnesota’s Brian Kallman directed a shot by Carolina’s Cory Elenio into his own goal.

Next up for the RailHawks will be the Montreal Impact, who bested the Austin Aztex by an aggregate score of 5-2. Carolina faced Montreal four times in league play this season, winning two and drawing one. But, the Impact is a tenacious, experienced opponent whose scoring threat has flourished since the return of striker Ali Gerba in July. Counting this week’s two playoff victories over Austin, Montreal has won eight of their last nine matches.

By virtue of their higher seeding, the RailHawks hold the right to decide the location of each leg of the series against Montreal. At the time this article was published, team officials have not announced their decision. However, the USSF website presently shows that the first leg this Thursday, Oct. 14 will be in Montreal, with the second leg to follow on Sunday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. in Cary. [UPDATE: The Montreal Impact website has this same information.]

If the USSF website’s information is accurate, this decision will not sit well with some RailHawks who would prefer to impose additional travel on Montreal that would come from opening the series in North Carolina. After Saturday’s match, Paladini and Gardner all but presumed the first leg would be at WakeMed Park, and Paladini left no doubt where he stood on the matter.

“Hopefully, the plan is to play [the first leg] at home and make them fly a couple of times,” Paladini said. “They’re in Austin now, so they would have to travel [to N.C.] and play us, then travel back to Montreal while we would only have to travel once…That happened to us last year when we played Vancouver; we had the option and wanted home advantage, but we had to fly twice. Flying anywhere takes a lot out of you, and if they’re flying to Austin and then to us and then back to their place, they’re going to be a bit tired at home.”

When asked his preference, Rennie was more circumspect. “Obviously, it’s nice to be home in the second game, as it was tonight. At the same time, it’s hard for them if they have to travel three or four times before they play us…It’s a little bit of a dilemma.”

Paladini’s position is quite valid from a competitive viewpoint. At the same time, the prospect of a midweek home match scheduled—and marketed—on four days notice sets the stage for a woefully attended game that would erode any home-field advantage. And, do not discount the influence that box office considerations have on this decision. The RailHawks slashed ticket prices on the way to drawing Saturday night’s boisterous crowd, but they more than made up the monetary difference from parking fees and fans queued up to purchase concessions and hastily minted “NASL Conference Champion” T-shirts.

More analysis will follow once the RailHawks’ decision is officially confirmed. In the meantime, Carolina’s fans can revel that their league championship hopes remain alive.

“It’s exciting to be in the next round,” beamed an elated Rennie. “It’s a big step for the franchise to get that first win in the playoffs…[H]aving won the regular season [conference] title, it’s starting to become a good season for us and it’s up to us to keep it going and make it a great season.”