WAKEMED SOCCER PARK—Etienne Barbara didn’t sound like a man just named NASL Player of the Month and on his best scoring run—seven goals in first six games of the season—of his career.
Never mind that the RailHawks won 4-2 against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and that Barbara set up the first goal, lofting a cross to partner Pablo Campos, and earned and put away the penalty for the second. Forget that on the strength of Barbara’s play Carolina took just 19 minutes to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead the team never would relinquish.
He was disappointed. The great ones always are, it seems.
“I wasn’t real happy with the game,” said Etienne, who spent much of the night muttering and gesticulating in between creating scoring chances. “I’m happy we scored and I scored and we won, but I’m not real happy with the performance of the whole group today. We could’ve done much, much better.”
The Maltese talisman was upset that the team wasn’t able to keep the ball as much as he wanted and didn’t dictate the play at home. Even though the RailHawks are on a five-game unbeaten run, he says the squad should play to a higher standard.
“I believe we are the best team in the league, but we have to prove it every game,” says Barbara, whose team sits in first place in the NASL, three points clear of Puerto Rico, which has two games in hand.
“I think our game can be improved a lot from what we are playing right now. If we improve our possession and dictate more of the game, our game will be so much easier.”
Despite Barbara’s frustration, the 2,109 fans in attendance, the most in four home games so far this term, were treated to an open affair as both teams pressed forward throughout the match.
The Strikers opened the scoring in the eighth minute when former UNC player Brian Shriver cut in from the right and found Patrick Otte unmarked at the top of the box. The forward struck a half volley off the bounce, beating Brad Knighton and igniting the contest.
“We started kind of sleepy,” Campos said. “When they scored, we kind of woke up.”
Just seven minutes later, Barbara collected the ball near the right corner flag and struck a hopeful looping cross toward Campos. The big Brazilian beat two defenders at the far post and nodded the ball off the underside of the crossbar past former RailHawk Nic Platter and into the net.
In the 26th minute, Platter batted away a strike from Nick Zimmerman, causing a scrum to ensue in front of the goal. As players hacked at the ball, Barbara knocked it to the side, stuck out his leg and tumbled. Referee Daniel Fitzgerald pointed to the spot. Platter guessed right on the penalty, but Barbara’s strike was too precise.
It marked the second time this season and the fourth in club history that the RailHawks have come from behind to win.
Late on in the half Barbara played in Campos, the two strikers appearing in sync after learning each other’s footsteps on the training ground, but Campos was pulled down from behind before he could get his shot away.
“I have my point of view, the ref has his,” Campos said, pointing to his tattered sock as evidence. “The guy tackled me from behind and he kind of almost broke my leg. It was a tackle from behind. He didn’t hit the ball. It was inside the box so it’s a PK, but he didn’t call it. Life moves on.”
Still, Campos managed to knock the ball goalward while lying on his side before Ft. Lauderdale defender Scott Gordon cleared it at the line.
He earned his brace in the second half on a free header from a Floyd Franks cross, directing the ball in between Platter’s legs at the far post.
“He’s a big guy. You want to find his head,” Franks said. “My job is easy. I’ve just got to put it in a dangerous area.”
The Strikers got a consolation goal deep into stoppage time when substitute David Santamaria got in behind the defense and beat Knighton one on one.
But, as the visitors pressed forward desperate to earn a draw, the RailHawks caught them on the counter as midfielder Jonny Steele cut the ball back for Franks who played it on to substitute Allan Russell who tucked it away sweetly, sealing the three points.
The team has now scored in every game this season, 13 goals in total, and coach Martin Rennie says he has never had a squad with so many scoring threats.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had goals like that in the team any time I’ve been with any team at this level,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to work on, but considering we didn’t have any players signed at the start of February, I think we are pretty good. We are ahead of where I thought we would be, so that’s encouraging.”
Though the slow starts are concerning, the team has showed the mettle needed to turn games around.
“We don’t panic,” Franks said. “Most of the goals we give up are kind of against the run of play. It’s some stupid mistake we do or something, so it’s all on us. We know we are the better team. The biggest thing would be to not have those early mistakes and come out and command the game from the beginning.”
That will be the aim Saturday when the RailHawks travel north of the border to face Montreal Impact, a heated rival.
“It’s always a big, huge game for us,” said Barbara, who will be keen to extend his scoring streak to seven games. “It’s going to be a big fight up there.”