Nothing but open space separating Nick Zimmerman and goal during the 4-4 draw between the RailHawks and Atlanta Silverbacks
  • Al Drago
  • Nothing but open space separating Nick Zimmerman and goal during the 4-4 draw between the RailHawks and Atlanta Silverbacks

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/CARY—For soccer naysayers who disparage the notion that a match that ends in a tie can be entertaining, I commend to them Nick Zimmerman’s description of the 4-4 draw between the Carolina RailHawks and the Atlanta Silverbacks Saturday night at WakeMed Soccer Park.

“Fun” was the RailHawks midfielder’s one-word adjective for a rollicking contest that included eight goals, 29 shots, two lead changes, three equalizers, seven yellow cards, three red cards and—for good measure—a game-ending fracas during which the fourth official was knocked to ground and Cary police came onto the field mobilized in a tactical formation best referred to as “the Montreal Impact maneuver.”

“It’s soccer, it’s unpredictable,” continued Zimmerman, who notched a brace on the evening. “Credit to Atlanta…down 2-0 they score two goals and then go up. Credit to our team…I thought we dug deep and came back with a decent result to a pretty unpredictable and fun game.”

RailHawks manager Colin Clarke offered a more wide-ranging assessment.

“Disappointed after being 2-nil up, frustrated. It was a good game, exciting. I thought we were good going forward, defensively we weren’t good enough today … We’re still two games into the season and still unbeaten; those are the positives. We scored four goals tonight and could have scored eight or ten. But, we can’t give up four goals, particularly at home.”

After Carolina (0-2-0) and Atlanta (0-2-0) opened the 2012 season with scoreless draws last weekend, both teams were clearly ready to stretch their offensive legs. It was the RailHawks who jumped out on their front foot, however. Just two minutes into regulation, Mike Palacio gathered the botched clearance of a Zimmerman corner kick and sent the ball past Silverbacks goalkeeper Daniel Illyes.

“Nick hit the corner [kick] and the ball popped out,” recalled Palacio. “It just came on my left foot, so I hit it one time. I think it took a little deflection off one of the defenders and went in.”

With Atlanta on their heels, the RailHawks continued to link up in the attacking third. In the 15th minute, Palacio sent a terrific left-footed cross into the box, but Jason Garey’s sailed left of frame. In the 18th, Zimmerman delivered his own cross, but somehow Palacio’s point-blank header also went wide left.

In the 38th minute, defensive pressure by the RailHawks led to a miscue from defender Martyn Lancaster. Zimmerman intercepted Lancaster’s back pass, maneuvered past an out-rushing Illyes and calmly deposited the ball into an open goal to put Carolina up 2-0.

“Amir [Lowery] put pressure on the defender,” said Zimmerman. “The guy made a pass back, and I was fortunate enough to read it. I just got a touch and was lucky enough to put it in.”

With the ebullient home crowd of 3,683 already spying victory, Atlanta immediately struck back. Shane Moroney found 33-year-old Reinaldo Navia in the box, and the unmarked striker popped the ball past a hapless Ray Burse.

Then three minutes later, the Silverbacks netted an equalizer. Tony McManus found Raphael Cox around 18 yards in front of goal, and when the RailHawks failed to close Cox down, he sent a low liner past Burse to tie the score 2-2 going into intermission.

“Like they say, 2-0 is the worst score in soccer,” said Palacio. “We went up two goals really fast and after that we let down a little bit. They scored two bad goals on us outside of the 18 to make it 2-2 at halftime.”

Early in the second half, Garey missed two more close-range headers off silver-platter crosses. And in the 68th, the Silverbacks made Carolina pay for their missed chances. An Atlanta corner kick wasn’t cleared by Carolina and instead found the head of Willie Hunt, who redirected the ball into the right netting to put the visitors up 3-2.

With the RailHawks poised to make two substitutions in search of another goal, Carolina would equalize in the 74th minute. A hard Silverbacks foul in the backfield stopped play as the defense let down their guard waiting to see if the referee might exact more severe punishment. Sensing their letdown, Kupono Low took a quick free kick, sending a long ball forward to Zimmerman, who played a one-two with Garey before blasting the ball from long range past Illynes to square matters at 3-3.

“I told Kupono at halftime to look for me because they were playing high,” Zimmerman said. “The defense wasn’t really turned on, so I gave [Low] a look and he kind of pinged in it. I headed it to Jason, who made a great touch to play it back to me, and I was fortunate enough to put it in.”

Three minutes later, the RailHawks’ comeback victory took a seemingly inevitable turn. With Zimmerman again streaking ahead of the defense towards goal, Hunt took Zimmerman down from behind just outside the penalty area. The referee sent Hunt off with his second yellow card of the match.

However, although now a man-down, Atlanta took the lead in the 80th minute. Displaying the sort of clearance skills usually seen in a U8 youth rec game, a gaggle of RailHawks kicked each other more than the ball bounding around their penalty box. The orb eventually squirted free, where Navia was all too happy to squib it past a helpless Burse to again give the Silverbacks the lead and the former Chilean international his own brace.

RailHawks Brian Shriver celebrates his tying goal against Atlanta
  • Al Drago
  • RailHawks’ Brian Shriver celebrates his tying goal against Atlanta

The RailHawks subbed in speedy winger Ty Shipalane, and the decision paid off in the waning seconds of regulation. Breaking into the right half of the box, Shipalane allowed a long chip pass from Zimmerman to play through, then one-timed a right-footed cross in front of goal to a streaking Brian Shiver, who one-touched the sitter top-net to knot the score once more at 4-4.

With three minutes of stoppage time already announced, the RailHawks took aim at an improbable win. However, after Carolina cleared a Silverbacks corner kick, Shipalane made a late slide tackle on Nico Colaluca near midfield. Anticipating a foul call from the referee, Colaluca raced over to Brian Ackley, who was standing on the touchline preparing to make a throw-in. Colaluca knocked the ball out of Ackley’s hands, Ackley retaliated and the two players began to exchanges shoves and blows. Clarke, standing a few feet away and perhaps recalled his raucous days in the South Coast Derby, stepped between them and pushed Ackley away from the action. In the process of trying to keep after Ackley, Colaluca lunged forward and inadvertently threw a shoulder block into the chest of fourth official Tyler McCauley, knocking him to the turf.

“I was trying to stop it,” explained Clarke. “You could see it going off and you try to separate players so it doesn’t go any further. It’s one of those things you don’t like to see happen, but it happens.”

Players and coaches from both benches jumped into the melee, along with Cary’s finest. Order was rather quickly restored, but despite over a minute remaining in stoppage time, referee Jose Carlos Rivero immediately ended the match, an option available under the rules anytime an official is assaulted or threatened.

Before heading for the tunnel, however, Rivero showed straight red cards to both Colaluca and Ackley, meaning each player will be suspended for at least one game. League officials were already reviewing video and photographic footage of the incident after the game, and additional punishments could be meted out.

The RailHawks generated 18 shots, and the four goals equals the number netted during the last NASL game played in WakeMed Soccer Park, last October’s equally wild playoff semifinals match against the NSC Minnesota Stars. A week after mustering only two shots at Minnesota, the RailHawks attack was potent against Atlanta. Carolina constantly carved up the Silverbacks’ defense with an array of crosses and through balls.

“I thought Michael [Palacio] had a great game out there,” Clarke said. “He scored the goal and could have had a second one. A couple of passes he had tonight were unbelievable … I thought Zimmerman was great tonight, [and] I thought Amir Lowery was superb tonight—he was a man out there.”

On the other hand, Carolina’s defense—which despite a clean sheet was unsteady throughout the game with Minnesota, allowing a whopping 22 shots—faltered badly this week, giving up four goals and 11 more shots. It failed to effectively close down and mark attackers, defend set pieces and execute consistent clearances. On more than one occasion, the normally reserved Burse could be seen shrieking in frustration at his backline.

Carolina is loaded with talent on offense, and their skills were on display tonight. We haven’t even seen the talented Austin da Luz in action yet, and striker Zack Schilawski is still trialing and may sign with the club in the coming days. But, while all that makes for a fun game, wins will only come once the defense starts to coalesce and perform. Paging Gale Agbossoumonde…

Carolina travels to Florida this Wednesday to take on the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and then flies to Puerto Rico to face the Islanders, Clarke’s former club. The RailHawks return to WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday, April 28 against the San Antonio Scorpions.