Austin da Luz fires a near-goal early in the second half of the Carolina RailHawks 1-1 draw with the Atlanta Silverbacks at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC
  • Rob Kinnan
  • Austin da Luz fires a near-goal early in the second half of the Carolina RailHawks’ 1-1 draw with the Atlanta Silverbacks at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/CARY—For Carolina RailHawks fans, Saturday’s result with the Atlanta Silverbacks brought some good news and some bad news.

First, the positives. For the fifth consecutive NASL match, the RailHawks turned an 80th minute deficit into points when Austin da Luz’s header off a corner kick in the 89th minute proved the equalizer in a 1-1 draw with the Silverbacks. Indeed, given Carolina’s recent run of late game heroics, the biggest surprise was that the RailHawks didn’t nab a game-winner during the four minutes of stoppage time that followed.

The draw keeps Carolina two points ahead of Atlanta atop the NASL Spring season standings entering the final day of play on July 4. The RailHawks still have the Spring season on their racket—a win at San Antonio this Thursday clinches the championship. Indeed, even a RailHawks draw would force Atlanta to win at Minnesota plus accomplish the daunting task of bridging a four-goal differential with Carolina to win the tiebreaker.

Yet, preparations for Saturday’s match felt like the lead-up to a coronation. A pregame pig pickin’ was followed by postgame fireworks. The NASL brass, including Commissioner Bill Peterson, was present and decked out in their Sunday best, bringing with them a decorative Spring championship dinner plate ready to present to the RailHawks at a midfield ceremony after the win. After all, the RailHawks had won all eight games—league and U.S. Open Cup—played in Cary this season.

However, the only NASL team to defeat the RailHawks this season became the first one to take a point away from WakeMed Soccer Park.

Cesar Elizondo sizes up a Silverbacks defender
  • Rob Kinnan
  • Cesar Elizondo sizes up a Silverbacks defender

Early on, Carolina played like a team weighed down by the gravity of the occasion. Chances came but decisionmaking and execution in the final third remained wanting. A Jordan Graye cross in the 13th minute sailed just inches over Brian Shriver’s leaping head. Four minutes later, after a tremendous drive into the area, Cesar Elizondo forewent an open shot for an off-line layoff. Shriver was lively all evening, but the league’s leading goalscorer didn’t put a single shot on frame (nor did any RailHawk besides Elizondo and da Luz).

Carolina’s defense held, but Atlanta began applying defensive pressure on the RailHawks’ back line to stymie their ability to develop buildups unabated. That strategy continued through a scoreless first half and into the second stanza.

The RailHawks best scoring chance came in the 58th minute, when da Luz took possession atop the box, feigned left before ducking back right and unleashing a solid right-footer that caromed off the crossbar.

“I missed the big chance earlier in the second half; I probably could have walked that one in,” da Luz said. “So, I had that in the back of my head and I wanted to make up for it.”

But, it was Atlanta who scored first in the 63rd minute. A free kick off the right flank by Danny Barrera found defender Bobby Reiss cutting unimpeded across the face of goal. His easy header flew past a helpless Akira Fitzgerald to put the Silverbacks ahead 1-0. Indeed, Atlanta nearly doubled-up the stunned RailHawks two minutes later, but two big saves by Fitzgerald kept Carolina within striking distance.

As the two managers countered each other’s substitutions and the control-oriented Silverbacks maintained possession, it appeared Carolina’s home luck had run out. That’s when second-half substitute Ciaran O’Brien—in a repeat of last week against Minnesota United—delivered a corner kick into the box that found da Luz cutting across the face of goal. His glancing header misdirected the ball just enough to fly past keeper Joe Nasco.

“It was a fantastic ball by Ciaran,” da Luz recalled. “I got in the right spot and luckily it ended up in the back of the net. I’m not sure how it got there, but I know it hit me in the head. But, it speaks to the character of this team that we can pull it out like that.”

After the match, the prevailing emotions of the teams, their coaches and the 5,304 in attendance were a conflicting mix of disappointment tinged with relief.

“I thought we should won,” said Silverbacks manager Brian Haynes. “We had enough opportunities to win the game and take the chances that we had. But by the same token, they had opportunities to win the game, as well. All in all, I don’t think anyone has come here and even tied a game yet, so I’m proud of the guys from that standpoint.”

“I think it’s a game we could have won,” da Luz countered. “We don’t like dropping points at home. But at the end of the day, we’re still in first place and we’ve still got our destiny in our hands going down to San Antonio.”

Win, lose or draw, everyone loves postgame fireworks at WakeMed Soccer Park
  • Rob Kinnan
  • Win, lose or draw, everyone loves postgame fireworks at WakeMed Soccer Park

Earlier this week, RailHawks manager Colin Clarke chose to rest many of his key starters during Carolina’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals loss to Real Salt Lake. However, those players still made the trip to and from Utah, and some saw second half minutes.

Clarke asserted that game played no part in Saturday’s outcome. Da Luz seemed to equivocate.

“We rested the guys Wednesday looking towards this game,” da Luz admitted. “Could it have played a factor? Sure, but we’re not going to use that as an excuse.”

Haynes, who served as assistant coach to Clarke when Clarke managed FC Dallas from 2003-6, was asked whether he believed the RailHawks’ Salt Lake trip and match affected Saturday’s game. In response, Haynes made perhaps the most astute observation on the subject.

“The only factor I think it played is the fact that [Carolina] has been on a win streak and winning games,” Haynes said. “And even though Colin didn’t play his real players, they didn’t win. And that can take away from your momentum. But if I’m Colin Clarke, I’m going in there and doing the same thing because I think winning this league is more important. That’s what his job is.”

All this sets the stage for this Thursday, the final day of the NASL Spring season. Carolina (5-2-4, 20 pts.) must travel to San Antonio to face the suddenly red-hot Scorpions, winner of four straight games. Meanwhile, Atlanta (5-3-3, 18 pts.) will visit Minnesota United FC, which must defeat FC Edmonton tomorrow to remain in the running for the Spring title.

Haynes credited the threats posed by Minnesota’s Pablo Campos, Simone Bracalello and Kentaro Takada. But…

“When I look at Minnesota, I’m not coming down on them, but … I don’t think they have as many weapons as the RailHawks, for example,” Haynes said. “And so, I’m not going to go in there thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve got this one in the bag.’ I’m hoping that they get beat by Edmonton tomorrow, and they don’t feel like playing and when we go to Minnesota they’ll be nice to us and give us a win.”

For the RailHawks, they must now go on the road—a place they haven’t won all season—and get a result.

“We have to,” responded da Luz when asked whether his team is up to that challenge. “We don’t have a choice. If we want to win a championship and host the Soccer Bowl we have to come out and finally get a result on the road.”