Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald skies during RailHawks PK shootout win over the Vancouver Whitecaps
  • Rob Kinnan Photography
  • Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald skies during RailHawks PK shootout win over the Vancouver Whitecaps

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/CARY—How surreal was Sunday afternoon’s friendly between the Carolina RailHawks and the Vancouver Whitecaps FC of Major League Soccer? To begin, there were as many RailHawks who took the field during last October’s playoff loss to the NSC Minnesota Stars—the last game the club played at WakeMed Soccer Stadium—starting today for Vancouver (Matt Watson and Brad Knighton) as Carolina (Kupono Low and Nick Zimmerman). Etienne Barbara, last year’s NASL and RailHawks’ Most Valuable Player, was wearing Whitecaps blue after signing with the club last week. And, there was the sight of three-year RailHawks manager Martin Rennie now pacing the Whitecaps’ sideline while Colin Clarke, formerly the five-year gaffer of rival Puerto Rico Islanders, bayed instructions in his debut as Carolina’s head coach.

So fluid has been the pipeline between Vancouver and Carolina this offseason that midfielder Floyd Franks, who began the day listed as a member of the RailHawks on the team’s website, sat on Vancouver’s bench wearing a Whitecaps jacket during the game. Later, it was confirmed that Vancouver would soon announce Franks’ signing, the fifth former Railhawk inked by the MLS team since Rennie’s arrival.

Thus, the match with Vancouver was as much about saluting Carolina’s past as glimpsing its future. However, even if many of today’s RailHawks were still unfamiliar to the crowd of 3,587, the fans’ enthusiasm for the home team never defected. And Colin’s crew obliged, rewarding supporters with a 2-2 draw in regulation time followed by a 4-2 penalty kick shootout victory over the Whitecaps to win silverware signifying something called the “Fourth Annual Hilton Garden Inn Southpoint Community Shield.”

The Whitecaps fielded a split squad, the rest of the team having won a gold chalice signifying something called the “Disney Pro Soccer Classic preseason tournament” Saturday night in Orlando, Fla. Still, Vancouver’s side featured a number of key contributors, including Sebastian Le Toux, Davide Chiumiento, Long Tan and Omar Salgado.

The RailHawks’ starting lineup comprised 10 players under contract. One remaining starter and all but two reservists (Ty Shipalane and Tommy Drake) were trialists hoping to snag the one or two roster spots Coach Clarke says are still available. Carolina was without a number of its high profile performers, including Jason Garey, Gale Agbossoumonde, Chris Nurse, and Cory Elenio. Despite these missing components, MLS opposition and less than two weeks of training camp, the RailHawks stood toe-to-toe with Vancouver and showed both skill and scrappiness.

Amir Lowery celebrates scoring a goal during the RailHawks match with Vancouver

Carolina struck first in the 6th minute when a Nick Zimmerman corner kick found the head of once-and-present RailHawk Amir Lowery near the edge of the six-yard box. Lowery ricocheted the ball into the back of the net to give Carolina the 1-0 lead. The score would remain that way until halftime, with the RailHawks—headlined by Lowery and midfielder Mike Palacio—flashing tremendous pace and confidence.

Vancouver began the second half on their front foot and applied increased pressure to Carolina’s backline. It didn’t take long to realize the fruits of this strategy, when a pinpoint Chiumiento cross in the 49th minute found an unmarked Tan in the box, who headed the ball cleanly into the net to tie the game.

The Whitecaps continued to push forward and it appeared that a go-ahead goal in their favor was only a matter of time. However, in the 71st minute Vancouver’s Russell Tiebert was injured and had to come off the pitch. However, Salgado, his eventual replacement, was not yet ready to take the field. With the Whitecaps temporarily down a man, the RailHawks took advantage. A strong dribble drive and blast by Zimmerman was stopped by Knighton, but a streaking Brian Shriver deposited the rebound into goal to give Carolina the lead and the fans in attendance a free 20 oz. smoothie for having enjoyed a home goal during the “Planet Smoothie Magic Minute.”

With the RailHawks facing improbable victory, Vancouver asserted their skill in the 90th minute, when a counterattack ended with Tan returning the favor with an assist to Chiumiento, whose one-touch shot across keeper Akira Fitzgerald evened the score 2-2.

As the whistle blew signaling the end of regular time, many fans began filing for the exits. It was only the explications of the PA announcer that revealed there was more soccer left to play—if one considers a PK shootout as soccer. Nevertheless, there was a certain symmetry to the spectacle. The RailHawks’ last game ended with a shootout with Minnesota, so why not begin the new season with one?

Carolina’s Sam Stockley, Drake, Cory Miller and Shipalane all converted their spot kicks. Meanwhile, Long Tan saw his attempt swatted away by a diving Fitzgerald, Tan’s second failed PK this preseason. And while Knighton’s penalty kick in the shootout against Minnesota last fall rippled the net, his air-mailed attempt today touched more aluminum than nylon.

Clarke left appreciating the good and the bad in his team’s performance.

“I thought we started pretty well,” said Clarke, “and then you could see the difference between a team that’s been in preseason for ten days and a team that’s been in preseason about five or six weeks.”

A conciliatory Rennie echoed the same sentiments, although a bit more loquaciously.

“I was impressed with the RailHawks,” said their former manager. “They’ve only been training for a short space of time, they’ve got a lot of new additions and Colin’s only been working them for a few days. So, I was really impressed with how they worked and how organized they were.

“We didn’t put any pressure on them in the first half and we didn’t really create enough chances. We wanted to make sure we moved forward and made much more of an attacking game of it in the second half, which we did. Once we did that, I thought we looked quite strong.”

Among the star performances for the RailHawks were Palacio, Lowery, Shriver and newcomers Austen King and Brian Ackley. But the game’s eye-opener was the play of Fitzgerald, a former Wake Forest standout who began his time with Carolina as a member of the RailHawks U-23 team. Under pressure from MLS competition, Fitzgerald made five spectacular saves along with stopping Tan’s penalty kick.

The diminutive Fitzgerald is listed as 5 feet 11 inches in height, a claim he reiterated postgame even as my 5-foot 11-inch gaze looked down at the top of the keeper’s head.

“I’ve been training well these past couple weeks, and they gave me the start this week and luckily I got to play 90 [minutes],” said Fitzgerald. “It’s just a day-to-day thing where I have to work every single day to earn my spot. I didn’t play at all last year, so coming into this season I have to prepare and make sure if the opportunity is given to me I take it.”

After the game, old friends and teammates exchanged hugs and handshakes, salutations intended to commemorate fond memories even more than extend well wishes for the future.

On the other hand, while Clarke left pleased with his team’s performance, he left little doubt about his mindset going forward with what is now unequivocally his team … and why he was so boisterous during a “friendly.”

“There’s no such thing as a friendly,” Clarke snorted. “You want to win a game.”