Amir Lowery of the Carolina RailHawks maneuvers around the Rowdies Raphael Cox during Saturdays 0-0 draw in Cary
  • Chris Baird
  • Amir Lowery of the Carolina RailHawks maneuvers around the Rowdies’ Raphael Cox during Saturday’s 0-0 draw in Cary

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/CARY—Going into Saturday’s regular season finale between the Carolina RailHawks and the visiting Tampa Bay Rowdies, both clubs had clinched berths in the upcoming NASL playoffs. Carolina knew it would host a one-game quarterfinal match at WakeMed Soccer Park on Sept. 29, and Tampa had already earned a bye into the two-legged semifinal round beginning Oct. 6. Sure, a Tampa win coupled with a San Antonio loss on Sunday would give the Rowdies the regular season league title, and the RailHawks would leapfrog Puerto Rico for third place in the final standings if it beat Tampa and the Islanders lost or tied in Atlanta. However, in most respects it was a supposedly “meaningless game,” using the popular sporting vernacular. And the coaches for both clubs wisely treated it as such, resting many of their key starters. In particular, Saturday’s match was the RailHawks’ fifth game over the past two weeks, including a three-match road trip that traversed Edmonton, San Antonio and Tampa before returning to Cary late Thursday.

So, it was a night for reservists and erstwhile regulars on both teams to get another run. For the RailHawks, Brian Ackley, Austin Da Luz and Breiner Ortiz, all coming off injuries and diminished playing opportunities, received their first starts in weeks. Middle Creek High and CASL product Nick Millington along with loanees Luke Sassano and Matt Luzunaris got their first starts as RailHawks. John Krause and Jamie Finch made cameo returns to the back line. Wakefield High and N.C. State grad Justin Willis made his NASL debut, coming on in the 86th minute.

The Rowdies also rested a number of key personnel, including Stuart Campbell, Luke Mulholland and Mike Ambersley. And, defender Andres Arango was suspended due to yellow card accumulation

It was even a night for old adversaries like RailHawks’ manager Colin Clarke and Rowdies’ gaffer Ricky Hill to catch up, commensurating at length on the field during pregame warmups. Perhaps they were comparing coaching notes, or perhaps they were recalling their English playing days when Clarke was suiting up for Southampton and Hill was on the tail end of a 12-year stint with Luton Town. Or as Clarke called it, “that era when the shorts were very tight and the hair was a little longer than what it is now.”

The final result was a scoreless, foul-filled draw, the first 0-0 home tie since Sept. 11, 2010 against the Portland Timbers. Both clubs attempted 13 shots each but were whistled for a whopping 38 total fouls (24 by Tampa Bay and 14 by Carolina). Tampa’s best scoring chance came in the 4th minute, when Rowdies’ forward Carl Cort muscled past Krause for a 1-v-1 with goalkeeper Ray Burse. However, Burse smothered Cort’s sure shot, just one of five acrobatic saves for the RailHawks keeper.

Carolina manufactured their own chances, mostly due to skillful first-half crossing by Da Luz. However, multiples efforts by Da Luz and Luzunaris to link up went for naught due to a lack of chemistry between the brand-new teammates. Indeed, the quick-firing Luzunaris led Carolina with four shots, but he only kept one on-target and struggled to coalesce all night.

Still, the Orlando City loanee has quickly become an integral part of Carolina’s postseason hopes after a season-ending foot injury suffered by Zack Schilawski and Ackley left Saturday’s match in the 19th minute after aggravating a hamstring injury that had kept him out of Carolina’s last four games. This misfortune now leaves Luzunaris and Jason Garey as the only active true strikers, although Brian Shriver can and often does fill the forward position.

Luzunaris said his loan to the RailHawks came about due to a relationship between his agent and Clarke. While Luzunaris had other options to choose from, he’s glad to be in Carolina for their postseason run.

“Minnesota wanted me to come in as well, but I think Carolina as a club and organization is better. I think the facilities are amazing—I think it’s top class. I think it’s the best in the country out of MLS all the way down to USL. The coaches, the staff, the players…everybody is really professional here.”

Luzunaris finished his season with Orlando about three weeks ago. Although he appeared in last Wednesday’s game at Tampa, Friday was his first full training session with the RailHawks.

“I think I bring a lot of speed, I bring a lot of power in the air. I like to play off the defenders’ back shoulders. I like to make runs in. Obviously I’m a little unfit; I’m not at 100 percent right now, but I think by next weekend I’ll be good to go.”

Luke Sassano keeps his eye on the prize

Since suffering the infamous 8-0 shellacking in San Antonio on July 28, the RailHawks have recorded 4 wins, 4 draws and only 2 losses, which is even more impressive considering six of those were road games. Carolina will have to wait until Sunday to know whether next weekend’s playoff opponent will be the Fort Lauderdale Strikers or Minnesota Stars.

“The last two weeks are a great testament of how much we’ve overcome for the season,” Burse declared. “Going and getting good results in San Antonio, Tampa and even Edmonton—those conditions are tough and travel is hard. But we played through it, and I think it’s good that we did that going into the playoffs.”

Prior to the game, the RailHawks passed out their annual player awards. Nick Zimmerman, who finished the regular season with 15 goals, was named Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year. Ty Shipalane won the WakeMed Unsung Hero Award, Sam Stockley received the Team Leadership Award and Justin Willis was chosen the Fan Favorite Player. Kupono Low won Defensive Player of the Year, a deserved honor for the 33-year-old captain who also led the RailHawks in minutes played. Still, there’s irony in being named top defender on a team that surrendered 44 goals, tied for second-most in the league.

Far and away, the most noteworthy part of Saturday tonight’s match was the tremendous crowd at WakeMed Park. The announced attendance of 7,310 is a new RailHawks record for a home league game, and it’s more than the 7,110 who watched Carolina host Chivas USA in the U.S. Open Cup on June 5.

In the aftermath of the announcement by the NASL that it will institute a split regular season in 2013 capped by a one-game championship final, there has been much discussion on blogs, podcasts and online message boards about whether the expected uptick in late-season games with no consequence on postseason participation will dampen competitive and fan enthusiasm.

First, there’s the irony that under the current playoff format, virtually every postseason-bound club used their final regular season game to rest starters and, consequently, did not field full-strength squads. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Silverbacks, which was eliminated from postseason play over two weeks ago, went unbeaten over the last three weeks of the season, winning three matches and drawing two. A team with “nothing to play for” simply played to, well, win.

The RailHawks’ box office tally on Saturday was months in the making, starting back when the front office made this game the third leg of the “Galaxy 3-Pack” ticket bundle sold in conjunction with the LA Galaxy Open Cup match on May 29. Also, two weeks ago the club offered ticket buyers to the Sept. 8 San Antonio game who left prior the start of the weather-delayed match a 48-hour window to redeem their unused tickets for passes to Saturday’s Rowdies game.

Add to that some targeted marketing plus the fact that the last home regular season game is traditionally a big draw, and you have a recipe for a record-setting crowd despite the fact that the game itself was “meaningless.”

Contrast this to next week’s short-notice playoff quarterfinal, in which the RailHawks will be fortunate to pass half the Tampa attendance through the turnstiles. During the first half of Saturday’s game, the club ran a promotion promising if the RailHawks scored a goal during a designated 10-minute window, it would pass out 250 free tickets to next week’s playoff game to the first folks who claimed them (obviously, the triggering goal never occurred).

Regardless, this season’s second season begins next weekend. Everybody’s welcome.