Nick Zimmerman slots home a first-half goal during the Carolina RailHawks 3-2 win over FC Edmonton at WakeMed Soccer Park
  • Chris Baird
  • Nick Zimmerman slots home a first-half goal during the Carolina RailHawks’ 3-2 win over FC Edmonton at WakeMed Soccer Park

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—The label “super sub” may sound like a term of endearment, but soccer players usually bristle at the brand. All team sports athletes want to be in the starting lineup and play the most possible minutes. Being a substitute, whether super or otherwise, is anathema to that aim.

No player in American professional soccer this year has epitomized being a super sub more than Ty Shipalane of the Carolina RailHawks. Entering Saturday evening’s match against FC Edmonton at WakeMed Soccer Park, Shipalane was one of only three RailHawks to appear in every league match this season. However, whereas both Nick Zimmerman and Ray Burse also started every game, Shipalane had only cracked the starting XI four times. But, oh, has Shipalane given RailHawks fans their money’s worth.

Coming on in the 85th minute, Shipalane put on another sublime display of offensive effort to score a stoppage-time, game-winning goal in the RailHawks’ 3-2 comeback victory over FC Edmonton. Including both league and U.S. Open Cup competitions, it was Shipalane’s fourth game-winning or tying goal this season, all but one coming in the 88th minute and beyond (Shipalane’s electrifying 75th minute equalizer against the LA Galaxy being the other) but none coming in games Shipalane started. He has also four assists, all after the 85th minute and two setting up game-winning or equalizing scores.

Saturday’s match was crucial for both Carolina and Edmonton. After weeks of holding a comfortable cushion for the NASL’s sixth and final playoff berth, a three-game winless streak by the RailHawks coupled with recent improved play from the Eddies had closed the margin to just four points entering this weekend.

A combination of injuries and other circumstances facilitated several alterations to the RailHawks’ starting lineup. Burse missed his first league game this season due to a family emergency, giving Akira Fitzgerald his first NASL start. Greg Shields and Sam Stockley again got the starting nod, as in Fort Lauderdale last Saturday, leaving Austen King and Cory Elenio on the bench. And with both Breiner Ortiz and Austin Da Luz out nursing injuries, Carolina manager Colin Clarke featured Zack Schilawski and Jason Garey together as starters for the first time.

Still, it was the Eddies who struck first and early. In the 9th minute, poor passing under pressure between Gale Agbossoumonde and Amir Lowery sent a loose ball bounding towards goal. Edmonton striker Paul Craig caught up to it just outside the penalty box and took one touch with the outside of his right boot, delivering a reverse curler that veered inside the left post for a 1-0 lead.

With Carolina carelessly surrendering possession throughout the first half, it fell to team-high scorer Nick Zimmerman to draw Carolina even in the 30th minute. Taking a feed from Schilawski along the right touchline near midfield, Zimmerman outmuscled defender David Proctor for the ball and made a direct run towards goal. Penetrating the box, Zimmerman slotted a shot across the face of Eddies’ goalkeeper Lance Parker to knot the game at halftime.

In the 64th minute, Lowery, already carrying a yellow card, was substituted out after receiving his really, really last warning for persistent fouling from referee Elie Aguilar. Eight minutes later, Edmonton took advantage with a counterattack led by Kyle Porter along the right wing. Porter dribbled around Stockley and found space to launch a left-footed blast from 19 yards out that found its target and again gave Edmonton a one-goal lead.

In the 79th minute, however, another second-half sub helped Carolina equalize yet again. Mike Palacio, who came on for Garey mere minutes earlier, delivered a cross that nicked off Proctor’s outstretched foot and onto the chest of an onrushing Schilawski positioned in the goalmouth. Schilawski’s sternum deflected the ball into the net to tie the match at 2-2.

Shipalane was poised to enter the game prior to Schilawski’s goal, but afterwards he was pulled back to the bench temporarily. He finally came on in the 85th minute and made an instant impact. Taking up station in the middle of the pitch instead of his typical position along the right wing, Shipalane initiated an attack in the 89th minute that ended with Zimmerman heading in a Floyd Franks pass for the apparent game-winning goal. However, the linesman signaled Zimmerman offsides, nullifying the score.

Ty Shipalane streaks towards his game-winning goal against FC Edmonton
  • Chris Baird
  • Ty Shipalane streaks towards his game-winning goal against FC Edmonton

However, Shipalane’s best was yet to come. After Fitzgerald snared an Edmonton free kick at the outset of two minutes of full-time stoppage, the RailHawks’ keeper delivered a downfield boot that flicked off Shiplane’s head to Schilawski situated along the right wing. Schilawski back-heeled the ball over to Palacio, who calmly laid it off to Shipalane overlapping through the middle. Taking possession, Shipalane split two Eddies’ players, maneuvered around Proctor and then finished with a sliding poke shot that flew past the keeper on its way to nylon.

“I saw a gap between the two (defenders),” said Shipalane. “They were isolated a little bit, and the goalkeeper was still on the line. So, my advantage was that I was inside the box; if I could keep the ball close to my feet…they would have to either win the ball or hit me. They hesitated for a second…so I took advantage of that and saw the space open and went right through.”

Zimmerman’s first-half goal was his 12th this season, second-most in the NASL. Palacio was also credited with two assists, giving him six for the year, the third-most in the league.

Moreover, the win gives Carolina seven points of breathing space over Edmonton. However, the Eddies still have six games on their schedule, including a Sept. 12 home tilt against the RailHawks. Still, in the compressed NASL table, the same seven points now separating Carolina and Edmonton is the same gap between the RailHawks and second-place in the league standings.

“We knew coming in that this was a big, important game,” Clarke said. “So did Edmonton. It was like a playoff game, a six-point game. And we got ourselves behind twice, and [we] showed a lot of character to get out of that and eventually go on to win the game.”

The bad news is that five of Carolina’s seven remaining regular season matches are on the road, where the team has thus far mustered a putrid record of one win, two draws and six losses. Moreover, five of their last seven games are also against the top three teams in the league: San Antonio (twice), Tampa Bay (twice) and Puerto Rico. And, Lowery and Agbossoumonde each have four accumulated yellow cards, one shy of mandatory one-game suspensions.

Still, Shipalane says his team is entering the season-ending stretch with a new outlook.

“It’s going to be a tough road,” he explained. “Everybody has to stay focused and not worry about anything else because right now we’re starting this as an [new] unbeaten run. So, from this point on we’re planning to actually go all the way without a defeat.”

With the USL PRO regular season finishing this weekend, Clarke intimated for the second time that he remains open to adding additional players to the roster if needed. The RailHawks’ gaffer also views the upcoming spate of road games through a different prism.

“In a lot of ways, I’m looking forward to those games on the road because it’s going to tell me a lot about this team as we move forward and get into the playoffs,” Clarke said. “And if we don’t improve, it’s going to be a hard time.”

Following trips to Atlanta and Puerto Rico, Carolina returns home on Sept. 8 to face the NASL-leading San Antonio Scorpions, the only team to defeat the RailHawks at WakeMed Soccer Park this season.