WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Perhaps in no sport is home field advantage more pronounced than soccer. In England, it’s not uncommon for certain teams to go decades without winning a match on a perennial competitor’s home ground. But throughout the course of virtually any season, a team will win some on the road and lose some at home.
Then there’s the Carolina RailHawks. The home versus road dichotomy Carolina has developed dating back to the end of its 2012 season is both pronounced and jarring. With its 2-0 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks Saturday evening before a season-high attendance of 5,527 at WakeMed Soccer Park, the RailHawks have now stretched their home unbeaten streak to 19 games over all competitions (league and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matches). Indeed, Carolina has won 17 of those 19 matches and drawn only two. The last time the RailHawks lost a competitive game at home was a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies on October 12, 2012 in the first leg of the NASL playoffs.
On the other hand, Carolina has won only one of its last 19 road matches, that being a 1-0 victory over Minnesota United FC last October. Of the other 18 games, Carolina has lost 10 and drawn eight. Moreover, beginning with the 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake in the U.S. Open Cup last June, the RailHawks have lost nine of their last 12 road games.
This year, the divide is even sharper inside the numbers. Over the RailHawks’ three home wins thus far this season, Carolina has outscored its opponents 7-1. Meanwhile, over its two losses and one draw on the road, the RailHawks have been outscored 8-1.
It’s a mystifying split personality that the team is both weary of discussing yet at the forefront on its collective mind.
“I know the fans here really like it, and it’s something to be proud of having 19 [home] games unbeaten,” says Connor Tobin, who joined Carolina prior to the start of this season. “But for me, I want to see if we can get eight, nine, 10 games unbeaten in general, home and on the road. As a group, we sat down this week and addressed that question. Hopefully moving forward into this next week we’ll have some answers.”
As if obliging with their own illustrative analogy, the RailHawks extended their Jekyll/Hyde psyche to last night’s match against the Silverbacks. By all accounts, the first half was as exquisite as the RailHawks have played in quite some time. They held nearly 70 percent of the possession and appeared to have acres of space to roam free and control virtually every aspect of the game.
Carolina also scored their two goals in the opening half. The first came in the 16th minute after Mike Grella, getting his third straight start since joining the RailHawks, drew a penalty as Atlanta defender Ryan Roushandel took Grella down in the box. After the penalty—one even Silverbacks bench coach Ricardo Montoya said he couldn’t argue—Grella eagerly stepped to the spot and converted the PK.
According to Grella, the penalty was more attributable to technique than sheer luck.
“Instead of snapping at the ball, I just opened my hips, pushed the ball on the other side of the defender and drew contact a little bit,” Grella said. “I was waiting for that contact, and [the defender] did stand in my way so that’s how I drew the penalty.
“My brother taught me that penalty years ago after I’d missed a couple of penalties in a row. It works pretty much all the time. I can’t give the secret away, but it’s pretty spot on.”
For Grella—who after leaving Duke University spent the last five seasons of his professional career in England and Denmark—it was his first U.S. pro club goal. It was also a moment of personal satisfaction for a player recently at a crossroads in his career.
“I was home for three months waiting for clubs to call, waiting to go back to Europe,” Grella recounted. “My wife and I decided we’d like to stay in America if possible. The best option after looking a couple of months was down here. I knew the set up down here, I knew it has great facilities and great people, and I heard a lot about the manager and staff. So, this was the place that I wanted to pick up where I left off in America, get back into shape and start enjoying my football again. Even though I had some great, great moments in Europe, it was also very difficult at times. So, I want to enjoy my football again, and I think tonight I did that.”
“Grella is a top-class player,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet.”
An apparent goal by Nick Millington in the 29th minute was nullified due to an offside call. However, in the 36th minute, Zack Schilawski delivered a left-footed cross parallel to the end line that sailed far post and found defender Connor Tobin. Tobin sized up his header and looped it over leaping Atlanta goalkeeper Eric Ati into the left netting.
“Ty drifted across the field, so there was no one on the back stick, Tobin said. “I was on the top of the box, so I thought I’d take a chance. Luckily the ball found its way to me.”
In truth, Carolina could have scored another couple of goals in the first half. After halftime, however, the game settled into a less fluid slog as a combination of trepidation by Carolina and astute tactical changes by Montoya altered the game’s dynamic.
“I saw a more superior team than us in the first half,” Montoya said. “They moved the ball very well. In the second half we controlled the game. They only had two counters in the second half … We just couldn’t put away our chances.”
Montoya provided further detail about both the Silverbacks’ first half miscues and second half changes. Note: the copious brackets in the quotes below are because Montoya, somewhat charmingly, repeatedly referenced various RailHawk players by their shirt numbers.
“The strategy at the beginning was to be compact in the middle, let [our] two center backs play, and once they get into a rhythm go and high pressure [the RailHawks],” Montoya explained. “The problem we had in the first half was our back line never stepped up high. So, [Nick Millington] and [Jun Marques Davidson] always received and could distribute the ball without any pressure. So once that happened, [the RailHawks] started winning the one v. ones, especially [Ty Shipalane] in the first half.”
“I think we controlled Elizondo today, but [Shipalane] was a hard task until the second half when I did a switch, [Junior Sandoval] for [Janny Rivera]. I sent [Rivera] to control [Shipalane], and maybe I should have done that in the first half and maybe have had a different game. And more pressure on [Millington] and [Davidson].”
Indeed, the Silverbacks ended up outshooting Carolina 23-14. Atlanta also held far more possession in the second stanza. However, 14 of Atlanta’s shots were off-target, and six were saved by Akira Fitzgerald, who earned his second clean sheet this season. Not coincidentally, both clean sheets not only took place in Cary, but they were the two games this season in which Toni Ståhl played center back.
Montoya served as bench coach for Atlanta in place of absent manager Eric Wynalda, who spent Saturday in London providing color commentary for FOX’s coverage of the FA Cup Final. Despite the unusual nature of Wynalda’s transcontinental managerial arrangement, Montoya expressed nothing but praise for his head coach.
“It’s great to work with Eric,” Montoya insisted. “I think Eric is one of the great soccer minds in this country. I think the U.S. soccer community has the wrong perception about Eric. It has been a blast to work with him.”
The RailHawks now enter an important fortnight. Next Saturday, Carolina visits league-leading Minnesota United FC. The following Wednesday, May 28, Carolina hosts the Charlotte Eagles in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup, already knowing that a win over the Eagles gives the RailHawks a mid-June home match against Chivas USA in the Open Cup’s fourth round. Then on Saturday, May 31, the RailHawks host the Rowdies for Carolina’s final NASL home game of the spring season.
On one hand, Carolina has two league matches that figure highly not only for the spring season standings but also potential postseason playoff qualification. However, a Cup win over Charlotte guarantees the RailHawks a big home game against Major League Soccer competition, similar to other Open Cup matches that have propelled Carolina the past two years.
For Clarke, the strategy is quite simple.
“We want to win every game,” Clarke declared. “You can’t prioritize. We want to win against Minnesota next week. Once that one’s over, we want to win against Charlotte. We’re not going to put out a weakened team or anything like that against Minnesota. The spring season is still a priority, and even if the spring season is gone it’s three points that become valuable at the end of our regular season.”
For Tobin, next Saturday’s game against Minnesota is a return to the team where he spent the previous two years. However, a road turnaround, not a homecoming, is what’s foremost on Tobin’s mind.
“We need to go there and be the aggressor,” Tobin said. “It shouldn’t be wait and see what might happen in the game. Let’s go there and let’s press. Let’s get in their faces and go there with the mentality that we’re going to get three points.”