Sallieu Bundu after scoring the RailHawks first goal, with Gregory Richardson close behind.
  • Courtesy of Carolina RailHawks
  • Sallieu Bundu after scoring the RailHawks’ first goal, with Gregory Richardson close behind.

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY – Who said a tie game can’t be exciting? After defeating the Montreal Impact in Canada almost a month ago, the Carolina RailHawks again faced last year’s USL-1 league champions at WakeMed Soccer Park for the second of four regular season matches between the clubs this year. On this night, 2,157 fans—and an unknown number of noisy, orange vuvuzelas—would witness a 2-2 draw that doubled as a primer on the highs and lows of soccer: Sheer, prolonged tedium followed a sudden torrent of goal scoring, paving the way for certain victory for one club that quickly devolves into nail-biting tension before a final outcome seemingly determined by that most universe of anathemas, the referee.

At the start of the match, the RailHawks still appeared to be combating a funk contracted after their early, disappointing ouster from the U.S. Open Cup tournament at Charleston last Tuesday. On the other side, Montreal was intent on righting the wrongs that led to their 2-0 loss to Carolina on May 30.

From the opening whistle, the Impact were the clear aggressors, slicing through the RailHawks’ defense for multiple scoring chances. Carelessness and disorganization resulted in the RailHawks barely advancing the ball beyond midfield; their only real first half scoring opportunity occurred in the 45th minute, when Floyd Franks, Gregory Richardson, and Cory Elenio linked up with pinpoint passing missing throughout the entire half. Unfortunately, Elenio’s final cross into the box sailed over a streaking Etienne Barbara. For the drab half, Montreal outshot Carolina 7-1, but both teams remained scoreless.

Coming out of halftime, the scoring drought remained until the 59th minute, when RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie substituted Josh Gardner and Sallieu Bundu for Elenio and Barbara. The change paid immediate dividends, as Gardner’s clever passing set the stage for a curling free kick off the right flank from left-footed David Hayes that found Bundu’s head on its way to the back of the net.

Following a nifty linkup in the 64th minute between Gardner and Amir Lowery that ended with a Daniel Palidini miss, Gardner would again target Paladini in the 71st with a pass to the opening of the goalmouth that Paladini stood ready to put away before being taken down by Montreal’s Patrick Leduc. The Impact defender was assessed a yellow card despite appearing to commit a last-man foul. Nevertheless, referee Jamey Walter called the penalty, and Franks would eventually convert the PK, but only after Walter disallowed Franks’ first conversion due to area encroachment by other RailHawks. With a 2-0 lead, a RailHawks victory seemed inevitable. That’s when things got real interesting.

Montreal drove the ensuing kickoff downfield and earned a corner kick. Leonardo Di Lorenzo’s long cross sailed to the far post, where Simon Gatti’s low header squeezed between a RailHawks’ defender and the woodwork to cut Carolina’s lead in half.

A few missed chances by both teams, along with a yellow card to Paladini for stalling, preceded the end of regular time and the start of three minutes of stoppage time. A free kick by Gatti just outside the box grazed the top of the crossbar, giving the RailHawks a goal kick. Montreal took back possession before Carolina knocked the ball out of bounds along the left sideline. With the RailHawks’ bench screaming for full time, the referee allowed Montreal to play the ball in before it was knocked out again for a corner. Montreal played the corner to an Impact player stationed near the ‘L,’ just outside the right side of the penalty area. As Montreal attempted to play the ball towards the box, Bundu ran out and lept, arms at his side, and the pass seemed to deflect loudly off his chest and towards midfield.

The referee’s whistle immediately sounded, and most fans stood and began gathering their belongings, expecting two others signifying the end of the game. Instead, Walter stopped at one blow and pointed to the penalty spot, calling Bundu for a handball inside the penalty area and awarding the Impact a penalty kick.

Tony Donatelli’s game-tying conversion beneath an outstretched Eric Reed, and Josh Gardner’s last-gasp launch in the direction of the opponent’s goal following the final kickoff, seemed almost anticlimactic compared to the other chaos on the field. Prior the PK, several RailHawks surrounded the referee to register their outrage. As soon as full time finally did end, Rennie and assistant coach Paul Ritchie sprinted towards Walter, their paths barely impeded by his linesmen and assistants. They, numerous RailHawks, and even team president Brian Wellman confronted Walter, to the point that Cary police intervened to ensure the officials safe passage into the locker room. Montreal coach Marc Dos Santos was seen embracing Rennie in an effort to claim him down; Dos Santos’ players congratulated each other while wearing the sheepish grins of cats that had just finished feasting on a silver platter full of canaries.

After the match, the normally reserved Rennie was outraged. “I’ve never seen anything like it. In my mind, that’s blatant cheating,” said Rennie. “It’s not like a mistake where [the referee] hasn’t had time to think about it. He put up three minutes of stoppage time, and the ball went out of play at 3:30. Then the ball came back in and he still let them play, and then it went out for a corner. That’s like four minutes of injury time. When the ball goes out, that’s time up. Then, he gives a penalty when the player’s hand is right close to his side. In my mind, it’s like he trying to make it a penalty, trying to make them score, and in the end he did.

“I hardly ever complain about the referees, and there’s lots of times I could. But, that was just a bit too much for me, to be honest…That referee should never ref at this level again. He was scared to blow his whistle during the game. And, then, at the end, he wanted to influence the game because he maybe thought he’d had a bad game, and you can’t do that.”

Triangle Offense sought to question Walter after the match. However, he refused to comment or be interviewed.

While virtually all the RailHawks disagreed with the referee’s decision, some chose to place the ultimate blame closer to home. “Whatever anybody says about the referee, we still had an opportunity to win [the game] and I’m kind of disappointed in us at this point,” said team captain Mark Schulte. “I apologize to our fans and our organization, because it’s just not good enough. At home, you need to be winning games like this, not crumbling in the last few minutes because of simple mistakes.”

“It’s football,” said Amir Lowery, who played another effective game at defensive midfield. “Refs are going to make decisions that like that affect games. But, to be fair, we didn’t close out the game like you should have.”

The bottom line is yet another disappointing home result for the RailHawks (3-2-6, 16 points), who have not won a league match at WakeMed Park since the season opener versus AC St. Louis. (Un)fortunately, they now embark on another four-game road trip—including yet another clash at Montreal—during which they hope to continue their success away from the Carolinas.