WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY – Reality caught up with upstart FC Edmonton Wednesday night at WakeMed Soccer Park. The fledgling franchise had christened their inaugural NASL season with wins at Ft. Lauderdale and Atlanta. Tonight, however, the Carolina RailHawks (2-1-0) put together a workmanlike 2-0 victory over FC Edmonton (2-1-0) in front of visiting NASL commissioner David Downs and a paltry midweek crowd of 1,181.
Carolina’s relative match dominance is tempered by the fact that FC Edmonton was on the tail end of a three-week road trip spent camped out in the southeast U.S., while the RailHawks were finishing a season-opening three-match home stand.
FC Edmonton displayed tremendous ability at building up through their midfield and maintaining possession – RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie said Edmonton is one of the best possession teams he’s ever coached against. However, the RailHawks clearly benefited from the chance to review game footage of Edmonton’s previous matches, enabling Carolina to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses, notably a lack of quickness along their back line and deficits in size and strength compared to the stouter RailHawks.
Moreover, although Edmonton attempted 14 shots during the match, none – repeat, none – of them were on target. Indeed, in order to register his first clean sheet this season, RailHawks goalkeeper Brad Knighton had to make exactly zero saves.
Sporting the same starting XI as Saturday’s victory over Montreal, the RailHawks kicked the match off on their front foot. Etienne Barbara launched two blasts in the 4th and 8th minutes – one with his left boot, the other with his right – that both sailed just left of the frame.
In the 19th minute, Matt Watson and Kupono Low exchanged a couple of exquisite passes that ended with Low firing a low shot that Edmonton keeper Rein Baart deflected across the goal line and onto Barbara’s waiting laces. Barbara’s sitter gave him a league-leading three goals in as many matches this season.
The remainder of Carolina’s first half comprised a revolving series of fruitful chances and fruitless finishes. In the 25th minute, Barbara outran Edmonton’s midfield before laying off the ball to a streaking Brian Farber, whose poke slowly bounded past Baart but just outside the right post.
An improving Pablo Campos created but failed to convert several scoring opportunities, including two with his feet in minutes 31 and 32, and another with his head in the 37th. Campos had a goal disallowed in the 59th minute for offside, and he botched a pinpoint Barbara cross in the 65th from pointblank range.
Still, Carolina’s inability to finish, combined with Edmonton’s ability to retain possession, fostered an uneasy sense that the visitors might eventually steal a draw from the jaws of defeat. By the 73rd minute, Rennie had already exhausted his three substitution allotment before Edmonton even made their first change.
However, FC Edmonton’s lingering hopes were finally dashed in the 76th minute. RailHawk sub Cory Elenio played a long ball ahead of an advancing Allan Russell. Baart rushed out well in front of the penalty area to swat the ball away. Unfortunately for the keeper, the loose ball found the foot of Nick Zimmerman, who casually launched a 35-yard chip shot over helpless defenders and into the open goal.
“I looked up and saw I had a little room,” said Zimmerman. “Coach had given us a great scouting report that sometimes their keeper would come out, so if you got the chance [you should] look up. Allan pressured them by getting behind [the defense] and creating the situation. I was just lucky enough to put it in.”
In the midst of closing down their defensive third to finish the game, the RailHawks’ last scoring chance came in the 85th minute, when Russell took control of another through ball with nothing but acres of grassland between he and the opposing keeper. But, Russell somehow managed to make a meal of it, getting caught from behind by Edmonton defender Dominic Oppong before losing control of his dribble.
“Ultimately, putting the ball in the net is the hardest part,” said Rennie. “That’s why the best strikers get paid the big money and are in high demand.
“It’s always nice to get a shutout; it’s always nice to win,” Rennie continued. “We definitely could have scored more goals tonight. I’m a bit frustrated that we could have made the game a little easier for ourselves. But, you can’t be too disappointed when you win 2-nil.”
Barbara’s scoring hot streak is attributable to several factors. First, he comes into this season fitter than last year, which was his first time playing in the U.S.
“After last season, I rested for two months and then I was playing [in Malta],” Barbara recounts. “Luckily, I got no injuries while I was playing there. So, [that’s] helping me start well and keeping me in the games.”
Barbara also relishes playing opposite the taller Campos, in contrast to last season when the RailHawks often played single forward formations.
“I play off of him – [he’s] the opposite of me,” explains Barbara. “I like to play the ball on the ground, and he’s always in the box and getting to balls with his head. I love it. Last season, I was playing too much alone [up top] before the midfield would come up. Now, I can get more linkage between the midfield and the other striker. We have a better attack…it’s helping.”
And, of course, the Maltese striker is an unabashed goal hound.
“I’m here to score goals. I’m a striker. I’m always hungry for more goals.”
The RailHawks now embark on their first road trip this season, visiting NSC Minnesota and FC Tampa Bay before returning to WakeMed Park on May 11 to face the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
However, defender John Krause believes the RailHawks are confident and ready for the challenge.
“We’re a good team,” says Krause matter-of-factly. “I don’t think there’s a team in this league we need to worry about. We just need to worry about what we do. And if we play to our potential, I think we’re going to be a pretty scary team.”