Tommy Heinemann slides for a loose ball during the Carolina RailHawks 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace Baltimore
  • Carolina RailHawks
  • Tommy Heinemann slides for a loose ball during the Carolina RailHawks’ 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace Baltimore

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY—The launch of Labor Day weekend put a dent in the crowd that made it out to WakeMed Soccer Park for the Carolina RailHawks’ Friday night match against Crystal Palace Baltimore. The announced attendance of 1,605 was the second lowest home draw this season—only the Aug. 18 midweek match against Miami was smaller. Still, as often happens, the stalwart few who ventured out rose to the occasion, often emulating the feistiness on the pitch and enjoying one of the RailHawks’ most satisfying performances this year.

The 3-0 victory by the RailHawks (10-8-7, 37 pts.) over Baltimore (6-14-6, 24 pts.) is not only their first clean sheet since the Aug. 7 win over Montreal, but it is the team’s game-high for goals this season. The result is even more unexpected considering that Carolina’s lineup was as mixed bag of returnees and unfamiliar faces. To wit: only six of the RailHawks’ starting XI were members of last year’s squad, and one—Kupono Low—has missed nearly all this season due to a knee injury suffered during training camp.

Indeed, Low not only got his first start of the season, but played the entire 90 minutes at left back as part of a reconfigured back line. The RailHawks had allowed seven goals over the past three matches (and 12 in the past six games). With Mark Schulte getting the night off and Matt Bobo away on a family matter, Low and game captain Greg Shields were joined by center backs Brad Rusin and newcomer Daniel Woolard.

Rusin, finally slotted into his natural position, was thought to have played his last game as a RailHawk several weeks ago. However, an arrangement with his new club in Denmark will allow him to finish the season with Carolina. Woolard is a 26-year-old defender who spent two seasons with Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire before being released at the end of last season.

Throughout the first half, however, Carolina failed to convert numerous scoring chances against a clearly outmatched opponent, a familiar refrain throughout this season. It is scarcely imaginable that C.P.B. defeated Carolina 2-1 three weeks ago in Baltimore, as the RailHawks were bigger, stronger, and faster than the visiting squad that took the pitch for the rematch.

The game opened with Daniel Paladini nearly duplicating his 20-yard curler from last Saturday against Puerto Rico. Floating corner kicks in the 8th and 21st minutes found the summit of Rusin’s 6-foot-4 frame but not nylon. A terrific drive down and across the pitch by Etienne Barbara in the 22nd minute not only failed to produce a goal, but it left Barbara hobbled and prompted his premature exit.

Enter Tommy Heinemann, another midweek addition to the RailHawks’ roster. After spending three seasons in the USL Premier Development League with the St. Louis Lions—during which he netted 35 goals in 36 appearances—Heinemann joined the Charleston Battery in 2009. This year, Heinemann scored seven goals for the Battery, who won the USL-2 championship last Saturday, on his way to being named to the USL-2 All-League First Team.

Sporting a Sideshow Bob mane, Heinemann made his spirited presence felt the moment he stepped on the pitch, mixing it up with defenders and even shadowing goal kicks. Still, a couple of squandered opportunities by Baltimore and a missed header by Heinemann were all that occurred before the referee called a halt to a scoreless first half.

Fortunately, halftime motivation found its way onto the field for the second half. In the 47th minute, Allan Russell, whose distribution as targetman was tremendous all evening, dropped a long ball off to Matt Watson, who sent it back to Paladini outside the penalty area. Paladini feigned left to shake off his defender before cutting back right and blasting an absolute rope from 22 yards out that touched nothing but troposphere on its way to the back of the net.

As both teams continued to push, the referee’s whistle began to sound with increasing regularity and inconsistency. With four yellow cards having already been shown (two per team), Low sent a free kick into the box in the 74th minute. Baltimore’s boisterous captain Val Teixeira upended Heinemann inside the penalty area, prompting another yellow card and a penalty. Russell converted the PK to give Carolina a 2-0 lead before coming off for Cory Elenio.

After failing to convert a couple of scoring chances, Heinemann finally saw his efforts rewarded in the 89th minute. “Cory [Elenio] and Floyd [Franks] had a great combination in the corner,” recounted Heinemann. “Then, Floyd zipped the ball across and I just threw a body at it and did everything I could to get on the end of it. I thought the goalie saved it, but it went off his hands and went in.”

RailHawks’ goalkeeper Nic Platter registered his first clean sheet this season, although, to be fair, scoreless tallies are easier to come by when the opposition only manages one shot on target (out of eight shots overall) and no corner kicks the entire match. By contrast, Carolina took 14 shots, six of them on target.

“We talked a lot this week about defending properly,” said RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie. “Tonight wasn’t the prettiest of games in terms of possession. But, we put them under pressure and we took our chances in the end.”

“It feels good to be back,” said a relieved Low. “The whole goal tonight was to keep a clean sheet. If we kept a clean sheet, we weren’t going to lose—that was our mentality. We kept pushing all night and got the first [goal], got fortunate with the penalty, and kept pushing for the third [goal] to close it out.”

The RailHawks host a friendly match against second division Mexican side Pumas Morelos on Sunday, Sept. 5 at 6:00 p.m. With only five matches remaining in the USSF D2 regular season, Carolina returns to league action and looks to move closer to clinching a playoff spot next Saturday, Sept. 11 when future MLS club Portland Timbers visit WakeMed Park.