Carolina RailHawks enjoy bittersweet celebration of NASL regular season title following loss to NSC Minnesota
  • Rob Kinnan Photography
  • Carolina RailHawks enjoy bittersweet celebration of NASL regular season title following loss to NSC Minnesota

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY — The Good: The Carolina RailHawks celebrated their 2011 NASL regular season crown Saturday night under seasonable weather and before a near-capacity crowd of 6,234 at WakeMed Soccer Park, the third-largest attendance in RailHawks history and the most since September 1, 2007. NASL commissioner David Downs took a hastily-planned trip to Cary to stand behind a banner after Saturday’s regular season finale and present the RailHawks with a replica claret jug commemorating the otherwise unofficial title.

“I hope it means a lot to the club and the franchise because I think it gives the organization something to build upon,” said RailHawks manager Martin Rennie. “Sponsors and fans like to be a part of a winning team, and we provided that.”

The Bad: Before the post-match photo opp (for which newly named team MVP and Offensive Player of the Year Etienne Barbara was noticeably absent, having stormed off the field to hit the showers the moment the final whistle blew), Carolina fell to the NSC Minnesota Stars by a final score of 2-1. The Stars’ win clinches them the sixth and final spot in the upcoming NASL playoffs and eliminates the Montreal Impact, who can now focus in earnest on their transition to MLS next season.

Saturday’s match essentially consisted of four minutes of fury sandwiched between lots of inconsequential back-and-forth. Errant shots and passes were the order of the first half, including a supposed shot by Carolina’s Pablo Campos in the 33rd minute that landed closer to the parking lot than the goal. In the meantime, RailHawks’ goalkeeper Brad Knighton kept the RailHawks even with several acrobatic saves. On offense, Carolina continued their recent ineffective ways, the lone bright spots being a couple of promising long shots by Nick Zimmerman in the 17th and 42nd minutes, the last a postage stamp delivery that leaping Stars’ keeper Joe Warren somehow saved.

The entirety of the evening’s scoring would take place over the opening seven minutes of the second half. In the 47th minute, a clumsy trip of Minnesota’s Jeff Cosgriff by Kupono Low just inside the box gave the Stars a penalty kick. Kyle Altman hammered home the ensuing PK give NSC Minnesota a 1-0 lead.

Just one minute later, however, a clever outlet pass by Knighton triggered a counterattack led by the otherwise erratic Jonny Steele. Steele played a low ball forward that found a seam between Stars’ defenders and the foot of a streaking Campos. Campos’ poked the ball wide of an outrushing Warren before depositing the ball into the open net.

With the boisterous crowd now cheering on the home side and this sudden glimmer of action, NSC Minnesota struck back in rapid fashion. A sloppy giveaway by RailHawks midfielder Floyd Franks initiating the Stars’ own counterattack that striker Brian Cvilikas finished with venom to put Minnesota back up 2-1.

To Carolina’s credit, the team pressed forward until the end seeking an equalizer or better. Barbara, who started tonight under threat of missing the first leg of the NASL semifinals if he picked-up his fifth yellow card of the season, played the full 90 minutes without a booking. Indeed, some late Carolina substitutions led Rennie to rotate Barbara to a central midfield position, where the Maltese talisman still proved the RailHawks’ most potent playmaker.

The Ugly: The loss to the Stars was Carolina’s fourth consecutive loss. Not only is this the longest winless streak for the RailHawks this season, but Rennie had never lost more than two straight matches in his coaching career before this lull.

Prior to their lone score in the 49th minute, the RailHawks added to their record-setting season by completing 371 minutes without a goal, breaking the previous ignominious mark of 366 minutes. Carolina had gone three games without netting a goal, last doing so in the September 3rd victory over FC Tampa Bay.

In the end, the RailHawks won the 28-game NASL regular season by just two points over the Puerto Rico Islanders. Over their incomparable first half of the season, Carolina amassed a 12-1-1 record, winning 10 straight matches in the process. Over the second half, the RailHawks actually posted a losing record, winning five games, losing seven and tying two.

After the season finale, Rennie was contemplative but surprisingly upbeat.

“I think once we won the regular season title, there’s an edge that has not quite been there,” Rennie admitted. “But, I believe in these guys and believe they’re going to find it for the playoffs. There’s something about them that when they really have to turn it on they can do it. Obviously you want to win every game. But, if you’re going to have a bad spell now is the time to do it.”

Rennie was heartened that the RailHawks’ fighting spirit seemed resuscitating. Indeed, Carolina attempted 11 shots against NSC Minnesota, one more than their combined total over the previous three matches. Still, the last three goals Carolina has surrendered, going back to the loss last week at Puerto Rico, have been the result of miscommunications and miscues in the backfield

Low, Carolina’s captain, believes the RailHawks are still capable of winning the league championship but disagrees that they can “just turn it on” like a light switch.

“It’s always tough after a loss – the next 20 minutes the boys are going to have their heads down and people are going to be upset. But after that it’s gone. We just have to remind ourselves that we won the regular season title, we’re the first seed and we have all the advantages going into the playoffs. Now it’s on us to get the job done.”

The RailHawks will take to the road on October 8 for the first leg of the NASL semifinals, with the second leg to follow back in Cary on October 15. Carolina will face NSC Minnesota in the semifinals should the Stars defeat FC Tampa Bay next week in the quarterfinal round. Otherwise, the RailHawks will face either FC Edmonton or the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

In the meantime, Rennie says he will give the team a few days off to get away from the pitch and, yes, each other in hopes of recharging their competitive batteries before this final stretch run.

“There’s a lot of people quite rightly criticizing us and asking questions of us for the first time, and now we have to show character and overcome that,” says Rennie. “I have confidence that these guys can do that.”