WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—The first question posed to Enzo Martinez after FC Dallas’ 5-2 win over the Carolina RailHawks Wednesday night in Cary was whether the RailHawks’ early opening goal conjured confidence that the WakeMed Soccer Park magic would again propel them to victory over a Major League Soccer opponent.
Before the Carolina midfielder could respond, florescent light bulbs flicked off, temporary cloaking the media room in darkness.
No further response was really necessary.
After surrendering one goal and nearly another over the opening 20 minutes of their quarterfinal match in the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a speedy, technically proficient FC Dallas turned out the lights on both the RailHawks’ tournament hopes and their 23-match home unbeaten streak.
FC Dallas opened the game with a three-man back line, a tactical decision that manager Oscar Pareja later admitted was in error. While Dallas’ formidable forwards would eventually feast on the RailHawks’ defense, their initial lack of cover in the defending third afforded Carolina’s own potent attackers space to make runs on goal.
That paid early dividends beginning in the 9th minute. Jun Marques Davidson played a nifty chip pass ahead to a streaking Martinez in the box. Martinez centered the ball over to Zack Schilawski, whose left-footed toe poke flew past FC Dallas goalkeeper Raul Fernandez for an early 1-0 lead.
“We decided to go with some pressure [at the start],” Pareja said, “but they made us change the plan quick due to their technical ability.”
FC Dallas center back Matt Hedges deferred a question about why the team started out with a three-man back to his manager.
“We tried it and it didn’t work as well as we wanted it to,” Hedges said. “So we made some changes, and we got much more organized afterwards.”
Carolina attempted to maintain their attack, with another Martinez blast in the 20th minute bounding just wide of the goal. But in the 23rd minute, Tescho Akindele drove along FC Dallas’ right flank before delivering a pinpoint cross into the box that found an unmarked Blas Perez, whose header rippled the upper netting and knotted the score at 1-1.
Unfortunately, the RailHawks’ offensive eagerness eventually played into FC Dallas’ plan. Too often midfielders Cesar Elizondo, Ty Shipalane and Martinez would dribble into a sure-footed defender and get dispossessed, triggering counterattacks that allowed Fabian Castillo, Andres Escobar and others to constantly carve up and break down the Carolina defense.
In the 34th minute, Carolina center back Austen King attempted a slide tackle to clear away a FC Dallas through ball intended for JeVaughn Watson. However, King’s clearance ricocheted off Watson and behind King, allowing Watson to regather the ball and center it to Perez stationed atop the box. Perez’s strike somehow dissected Daniel Scott and Kupono Low before skimming past goalkeeper Scott Goodwin to give Dallas a 2-1 lead.
However, just two minutes later an Elizondo dribble was handled in the area by Moises Hernandez, drawing a penalty call from referee Ricardo Salazar. Martinez stepped to the spot and hammered his PK past Fernandez to equalize at 2-2.
With Carolina harboring hopes of carrying a tie score into halftime, a RailHawks miscue in the 44th minute gave FC Dallas the eventual game-winner. Another Elizondo dispossession, this time to Watson, launched a Dallas counter lead by Escobar, who galloped into the attacking third before sending a seeing eye through ball ahead to Castillo. All Castillo did was beat Low to the ball, maneuver past Scott and then round Goodwin before calmly depositing the ball into an open goal for a 3-2 lead at intermission.
It was a moment of technical class that epitomized the talent gap between FC Dallas’ speedy, skilled attackers and an outmatched RailHawks back line, whose output this evening was a far cry from their flawless performance two weeks ago during Carolina’s Open Cup win over the LA Galaxy.
After halftime, FC Dallas subbed in defender Stephen Keel and retreated to a flat four-man back line with a compact midfield. Dallas remained content to surrender much possession to Carolina, but the RailHawks were unable to convert their chances.
As Carolina threw players forward late in the match in search of another equalizer, it opened space for FC Dallas to ultimately pad their lead. In the 89th minute, another Martinez turnover near midfield triggered yet another Dallas counter. Mauro Diaz drove across the center line before playing the ball wide left to Castillo. Castillo drew defenders before calmly returning the favor back to Diaz for a professional finish.
Then a couple of minutes later during added time, another dynamic drive up the left side by Castillo ended with him dribbling toward the top of the 18-yard box, rounding a helpless Scott, and then laying the ball over to an unmarked Perez. All that remained was for Perez to complete his hat trick and account for the final scoring tally.
The sad irony is while Carolina had more possession and attack against FC Dallas than the Chivas USA and LA Galaxy games combined, the ultimate result was very different.
“I thought we played pretty well,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “I thought we competed with them. I thought we passed the ball and moved the ball. Just the little details in each box, defensively and [not] being clinical in the other box. They were better than us tonight at that.”
The match carried a sense of occasion and connections about it. Jason Kreis, the new manager of the MLS expansion side New York City FC and a former Duke University standout, was on hand for a scouting expedition—he spent the pregame at a nearby watering hole watching the Netherlands-Argentina FIFA World Cup match amid RailHawks’ supporters.
Also, Pareja both played for and served as an assistant coach under Clarke when Clarke managed FC Dallas from 2003-2006.
“It was good to see them, good to catch up with them,” Clarke said about Pareja and his other FC Dallas friends. “I think they’re doing good things down there. They’re a fun team to watch … and have some great players.”
And, there was another reunion of sorts between Martinez, Goodwin and Hedges, who were teammates on the 2011 North Carolina Tar Heels men’s national championship team.
“Obviously, it was the kind of reunion I hoped we’d have,” Hedges joked about getting the win over his former college mates.
The loss to FC Dallas squanders Carolina’s chance to host an Open Cup semifinal tie against the Philadelphia Union next month. However, with this year’s Open Cup run now over, the RailHawks’ attention turns squarely toward the NASL fall season, which kicks off this Saturday in Cary against Indy Eleven. Indy finished at the bottom of the league’s spring season standings, failing to win any of their nine games. However, one of their four draws came against the RailHawks.
Saturday’s match presents Carolina a chance to kick off the fall campaign with a home win and maybe exorcise a few demons in the process. That said, three of the team’s four games following this weekend will be on the road at Minnesota, San Antonio and New York, the three top teams in the NASL spring season.
Fortunately, the RailHawks spent the NASL “midseason” World Cup break playing three competitive matches against MLS teams and an additional friendly against Puebla FC from Liga MX, winning three of those four contests. Clarke says his team enjoyed the much-needed preparation, and he learned a few things about them in the process.
“We need to be more clinical,” Clarke said. “We also need to be a little nastier in some ways, a little more professional. There were a few times tonight when we could have stuck in some tackles and we didn’t. They didn’t mind giving us a kick from time to time, and we’ve got to get that into our game, particularly when we go on the road.”