WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Just as the Carolina RailHawks and Minnesota United FC were set to kick off the second half of last night’s match in Cary, a power surge doused the floodlights at WakeMed Soccer Park, momentarily enveloping the main stadium in total darkness.
It proved a jackhammer-subtle metaphor for what would unfold in two different soccer matches over the ensuing hour, culminating with the RailHawks’ 2-2 draw with Minnesota United and the end of Carolina’s 2014 season. The party was over … turn out the lights.
The RailHawks knew that Saturday was their final home game of 2014. The lone remaining question was whether Carolina would earn the opportunity to hit the road for the NASL postseason tournament, named The Championship (goodbye “Soccer Bowl,” we hardly knew ye). The RailHawks and Fort Lauderdale Strikers were vying for the fourth and final postseason berth, which begins next weekend. The Strikers held a two-point lead over Carolina in the league standings, plus a four goal differential advantage (the first tiebreaker). Practically speaking, the RailHawks hopes rested almost entirely on defeating league-leading Minnesota United plus needing the Strikers to lose at home to the Ottawa Fury, mired near the bottom of the league table.
And for a while, that final, improbable twist in Carolina’s season that manager Colin Clarke wished for for two weeks ago appeared poised to occur. Thanks to the miracle of Twitter, we’re left with a the timeline of the evening that juxtaposes one team’s ecstasy against another team’s agony.
7:33 p.m.—The RailHawks and Minnesota United kickoff in Cary. While Carolina was still fighting for a postseason berth, Minnesota United, which had already won the NASL spring season championship and clinched the best overall record for the entire regular season, was hoping to stave off the San Antonio Scorpions to win the league’s fall season crown.
The RailHawks came out sharp, aggressive and unintimidated by their talent-laden opponents. Although Carolina was playing without injured captain Jun Marques Davidson, Minnesota manager Manny Lagos sat several key players. Daniel Mendes got some needed rest, while Aaron Pitchkolan and Tiago Calvano did not play out of concern over yellow card accumulation. Still, the Loons rolled out their attacking stalwarts, including NASL-leading goalscorer Christian Ramirez and midfielder Miguel Ibarra.
7:46 p.m.—The match between the Strikers and Ottawa Fury, also scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., kicked off in Fort Lauderdale.
7:55 p.m.—A minute after an apparent RailHawks goal was waived off for offside, Carolina got on the board. Another spectacular display of playmaking by Ty Shipalane culminated with a drive into the box and a short cross across the face of goal to a waiting Nacho Novo, who converted an easy short-range putaway for a 1-0 lead. It was Novo’s second goal since joining the RailHawks in September.
“I was running down [the right side] screaming my lungs out so [Nazmi Albadawi] would pass me the ball,” Shipalane said. “I took my first touch and it took me a little out wide. I saw [the defender] coming to try and close me down, so I cut inside, got my head up and saw Nacho was in a much better position to score a goal than I was. So, I just had to pass it across and he was good to finish it.”
8:02 p.m.—Ottawa took a surprise 1-0 lead over Fort Lauderdale in the 16th minute thanks to a goal by Fury captain Nicki Paterson.
8:17 p.m.—Another terrific maneuver by Shipalane in the 44th minute ended with a dish by Novo and a shot by Albadawi inside the 6-yard box. However, Minnesota goalkeeper Matt VanOekel somehow made the reflexive save to maintain Carolina’s 1-0 lead.
Two minutes later, Minnesota nearly equalized before intermission with a on-target blast in the box. However, goalkeeper Scott Goodwin made his own leaping, fingertip save as the halftime whistle blew.
8:31 p.m.—Ottawa led the Strikers 1-0 as the teams reached halftime in Fort Lauderdale. Based on the results at halftime of both matches, the RailHawks would have qualified for the NASL postseason tournament.
8:35 p.m.—As Carolina and Minnesota were taking their positions to start the second half, the stadium lights went dark. RailHawks’ owner Aaron Davidson and president Curt Johnson were standing in my eye-line at the time of the outage, so any suspicion that either personally kicked the power cord so the Strikers-Fury match would catch up time-wise is unfounded.
8:57 p.m.—A red card was issued against Ottawa’s Mauro Eustaquio for a studs-up tackle on the Strikers’ Pecka, taking the Fury down to 10 players and making a Fort Lauderdale comeback seemingly inevitable.
9:00 p.m.—After a half-hour delay, the RailHawks and Loons kicked off their second half.
9:06 p.m.—A sloppy giveaway by Kupono Low in the RailHawks’ backfield—one of several to lead off Carolina’s tentative start to the second stanza—triggered a Minnesota attack. The ball ended up at the feet of Ramirez, who uncorked a screamer from 20 yards out that flew past Goodwin to even the score at 1-1. It’s Ramirez’s 20th goal this season, tops in the NASL.
9:27 p.m.—Ottawa’s 10 men clung to their 1-0 lead over Fort Lauderdale until the 86th minute. Ali Hassan unleashed a golazo that evened their score 1-1.
9:29 p.m.—The RailHawks recaptured the lead over Minnesota United in the 74th minute. Alex Martinez, getting his first start since joining the RailHawks in October, drove along the end line before calmly crossing the ball to Albadawi, his former N.C. State teammate, stationed in the goalmouth. Albadawi deposited the sitter for a 2-1 advantage to the raucous delight of the announced 6,450 fans in attendance.
9:33 p.m.—Despite holding a lead over Minnesota, it’s obvious Carolina’s coaching staff had access to social media and was cognizant of the score in Fort Lauderdale. Realizing their only hope now rested with bridging the goal differential gap, the RailHawks removed holding midfielder Leo Osaki plus Danny Barrera and brought on striker Zack Schilawski and attacking midfielder Enzo Martinez.
9:39 p.m.—After six minutes of second half added time, the Strikers and Fury concluded their 1-1 draw, all but assuring Fort Lauderdale their postseason berth.
9:40 p.m.—Adding insult to injury, RailHawks defender Connor Tobin, who played Minnesota United last year, momentarily lost track of his current club and redirected a Kevin Venegas curling cross into Carolina’s net for an own goal, evening the score at 2-2.
9:50 p.m.—The final whistle blew on Carolina and Minnesota’s 2-2 tie. In three matches between the teams this year (two of them in Minnesota), Minnesota won once by a score of 1-0 while the other two games ended in draws.
10:30 p.m.—Huddled around a lone smartphone in the corridor outside the locker rooms at WakeMed Soccer Park, Minnesota United players watched as the San Antonio Scorpions clipped a late goal to defeat the New York Cosmos and edge past Minnesota to win the NASL fall season title.
After lauding his team’s sharp, well-played first half, Clarke was left to ponder their wayward second half that saw his midfielder and back line cough up four or five passes in its early minutes.
“We didn’t start [the second half] well and gave too many unnecessary balls away,” Clarke said. “We gave them the momentum and gave up an awful goal. Overall, it was probably a fair result.”
RailHawks supporters may point to any number of previous match results as the culprits for Carolina ultimately missing out on postseason play. There was the 1-0 loss at Fort Lauderdale in early October, followed by the 1-1 tie two weeks later during the return match in Cary. There was the 2-2 draw at Ottawa in early September, in which a seemingly sure victory was snatched away by a questionable added-time goal by the Fury. And there were lopsided losses—two at Edmonton by scores of 6-1 and 3-0, a 3-0 defeat at San Antonio, and a 4-0 debacle at Ottawa back in late April—that forged the goal differential deficit with Fort Lauderdale that Carolina couldn’t hope to overcome.
But in truth, the postseason was lost in July and August, when Carolina—which at one point carried a 23-match home unbeaten streak from 2013 until this July’s loss to FC Dallas in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup—lost at home to Indy Eleven, the Atlanta Silverbacks and Tampa Bay Rowdies, three of the bottom four teams in the league. Flipping just one of those losses to a win would have put the RailHawks in the playoffs.
Indeed, over their 18-game NASL fall campaign, the RailHawks finished with a record of 4-1-5 (W-D-L) against the bottom five teams in the league. Yet against the top four teams, Carolina amassed a respectable record of 3-2-3.
It’s those missed opportunities that Clarke said will gnaw at him all offseason.
“It’s why you play the game, to win championships and play in the big games,” Clarke said. “I’m disappointed that we’re not doing that at the end of the season. Our season is over and we’re going to have to watch from afar as someone else wins a championship, and that’s hard to take.”
Heading into this offseason, the RailHawks already face a number of important decisions. Aaron Davidson was in town for a variety of reasons, including budget meetings with Johnson and the RailHawks’ staff. There are a sizable number of players under a contractual club option for next year, so decisions have to be made about who to bring back or not.
And then there’s Clarke, who is winding down the third and final year of his RailHawks contract. Johnson confirmed contract negotiations were already ongoing with Clarke and, from his perspective, left scant doubt about Clarke’s future with the club.
“He wants to be back, we would love for him to be back and I think he will be back,” Johnson said. “I think he’s been very good for the organization three years in. We’ve had a lot of big moments, but I think there’s still unfinished business. I think that motivates him, it certainly motivates our owners and myself. So I’m confident that we’ll be able to get him resigned and move forward very quickly.”
Clarke confirmed he and the club were already talking and that he’d like to return next year.
“I’m enjoying myself here,” Clarke said. “It’s a great place. It’s growing every year. You can see the crowd, what the front office staff has done … and a lot of other exciting things behind the scenes. I’d love to be a part of that.”