WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—It was supposed to be a stroll in the Park.
On one side were the Carolina RailHawks, riding a 17-match home unbeaten streak against their North American Soccer League (NASL) competition. Moreover, four weeks ago, Carolina defeated Chivas USA of Major League Soccer (MLS) in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup; less than three weeks ago, they did the same thing to Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and the LA Galaxy.
On the other end was Indy Eleven, an expansion NASL side without a single win in nine regular season games this year. Indy Eleven surrendered 20 goals over those nine games, tied with the Atlanta Silverbacks for the most in the league. And over the midseason NASL break, Indy Eleven cut ties with four of their roster players, including starter Walter Ramirez.
The outcome seemed inevitable, which naturally meant it would turn out to be anything but. A cornucopia of calamity beset the hometown RailHawks as Indy Eleven ground out a 2-1 win in each team’s opening match of the NASL fall season.
The RailHawks ran out a starting XI largely identical to Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup loss to FC Dallas. The lone change was the absence of Cesar Elizondo, who was nursing a slight knee injury. In his place was Nick Zimmerman, making his first competitive start since 2012. Zimmerman has seen competitive, largely productive minutes in three recent matches against the Galaxy, FC Dallas and a friendly last Sunday against Puebla FC. That said, Zimmerman’s pace off the left wing was much reduced from the speedy Elizondo.
Nevertheless, things appeared to be going to plan midway through the first half. In the 24th minute, a feed by Zack Schilawski snaked its way under sliding defender Chris Estridge and found Enzo Martinez in the box. Martinez juked his way to the right of Erick Norales before uncorking a blast directly at goalkeeper Kristian Nicht. The orb deflected off Nicht’s mits and into the far netting for a 1-0 Carolina lead.
For those 3,080 fans in attendance who also witnessed Carolina’s recent Open Cup run, the gap in talent between Indy Eleven and recent MLS visitors was marked. That said, Indy Eleven still managed to best Carolina in most statistical categories during the first half, outshooting the RailHawks 7-1, snagging four corner kicks to Carolina’s zero and keeping half the possession thanks to some horrendous passing by the RailHawks’ normally surefooted midfield.
However, the RailHawks failed to capitalize on their lead and a porous Indy defense. Instead, their sloppy passing continued into the second stanza. Still, Carolina appeared poised to cling to their slim advantage.
That changed in the 57th minute. Another sloppy giveaway at midfield, this time by the usually steady Jun Marques Davidson, triggered an instant Indy Eleven counter attack. After dispossessing Davidson, Victor Pineda played a perfectly weighted through ball ahead to a streaking Ben Spencer. Spencer was bound for goal before being tripped from behind by Carolina’s Austen King just outside the 18-yard box. Indy Eleven earned a free kick, and King earned a red card.
It was a huge error by King. With Spencer having already beaten him, the other two possible outcomes of this sequence were each preferable to what ultimately occurred. Goalkeeper Scott Goodwin had already rushed out and reduced Spencer’s shooting angle, giving the keeper a real save opportunity. But even if Spencer scored, the game would be tied 1-1 and Carolina would still have a full-strength squad on home turf with over 30 minutes left to play. Instead, King was sent off and Carolina was reduced to 10 men with lots of time to play on the tail end of a three-game week.
Kleberson’s ensuing free kick rattled the crossbar, but the tenor of the game had changed. RailHawks manager Colin Clarke immediately substituted in defender Leo Osaki to take King’s spot at center back, removing Zimmerman from the contest.
In the 62nd minute, Carolina’s Nazmi Albadawi made a run toward the box before going down just outside the penalty area. However, referee Chris Penso booked Albadawi for a dive.
Three minutes later, Indy Eleven notched their equalizer. A hopeful long ball ahead by Pineda was totally muffed by Osaki and instead feel neatly to Spencer, who calmly maneuvered left and deposited his shot past a helpless Goodwin.
With blood in the water, Indy Eleven kept up the pressure while Carolina kept coughing up possession. In the 76th minute, Indy had two shots in the box, both saved by Goodwin. In the 84th, Carolina’s Daniel Scott came dangerously close to scoring an own goal.
In the meantime, Clarke used his second substitution to insert striker Daniel Jackson for Ty Shipalane. Jackson’s arrival was overdue: his pace up top stretches the defense and opens up space for other attackers. However, Shipalane’s removal was curious; he wasn’t having a bad game, and his speed and presence is often the bane of tired, late-game defenses.
Nevertheless, it was Indy Eleven that found their second score in the 87th minute. The pivotal sequence began with Jackson making a dribble run up the right flank, with Davidson and Osaki streaking into attack. Jackson’s cross into the box was intercepted by Estridge—RailHawks fans howled that Estridge used his arm while the referee claimed it caromed off his chest. Nevertheless, Zack Schilawski gathered the loose ball only to immediately pass it away, and with Carolina’s holding midfielder and center back still out of position, Indy Eleven lept on the opportunity, making their way downfield. There, Dylan Mares played a through ball that got past Kupono Low to an onside Don Smart, who slotted his shot past Goodwin for the game winner.
Smart’s goal left the RailHawks smarting.
“With tonight’s loss, it was a rude awakening,” Low said. “Our MLS Open Cup run has nothing to do with our league play … Tonight wasn’t good enough from everyone. This is our job, and we’re all replaceable. Anyone in our league would love to come here and play in this facility and team. So our jobs are up in the air, and we need to play with that mentality. And we didn’t tonight.”
There were various factors that contributed to the RailHawks’ debacle. Fatigue was certainly a factor, with the same lineup running out for their second game in three days. And going a player down with a half hour of time remaining is never ideal, particularly with tired legs setting in.
“Anything I say is going to sound like excuses, but there were circumstances,” Clarke said. “I decided the best course of action was to play the same team that was so good against FC Dallas. We went 1-nil up, [but] not playing great in the first half and we weren’t sharp with our passing. Then the red card completely changes the game.”
But it’s more than that. Carolina’s passing and possession were atrocious, particularly in the midfield. And the RailHawks have now lost two of their three matches since the departures of forward Mike Grella and defender Toni Stahl, who left as their half-season contracts were expiring and the team couldn’t agree to terms for the NASL fall season. However, tonight’s loss was the game where their absence was most acutely felt.
Grella’s skill and strong presence up top would have been valuable against a generous defense like Indy Eleven. Moreover, tonight the red card, the botched clearance that allowed Indy’s equalizer, and the game-winning assist all came from or through the left center back position, where Stahl was stationed during the spring season.
Carolina is in talks to acquire some much-needed help, although it’s unclear when that help might be available and fit. In the meantime, having already dropped three points at home to the last-place team in the league, the RailHawks are staring down the barrel of playing three of their next four games on the road, at Minnesota, at New York and at San Antonio, the top three teams in the spring season.
The RailHawks’ fall season fortunes might be hanging in the balance by the first week in August.
As if two straights losses weren’t distressing enough, the RailHawks’ organization also fought the law, and the law won.
Midfielder Nick Millington is leaving the team and his soccer playing career to attend law school this fall at UNC-Chapel Hill. After attending Middle Creek High School in Apex, Millington matriculated to Wake Forest University and then Elon University. He also played club soccer for Raleigh CASL Elite and was a former U.S. youth national contributor. Millington spent the last three seasons with the RailHawks, working his way into the starting rotation early this year.
Meanwhile, David Vaught is stepping down from his front office position with the RailHawks effective July 18 to attend law school at N.C. Central University. David has been a part of the RailHawks’ staff since 2007, starting as an unpaid college intern for the team during their inaugural season. David parlayed that into a full-time staff position with the RailHawks after he graduated from N.C. State. This year, David was elevated to the position of Vice-President of Operations and Communications. By his estimation, he’s worked in virtually every facet of the RailHawks’ front office—from ticket sales to game day operations, player administration, corporate sponsorship, and public and media relations—all by the age of 27. David’s been a dedicated, hard-working asset to the RailHawks’ family and a patient, professional friend to the media. He’ll be missed.