WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/CARY — Coming into Friday night’s match at the Carolina RailHawks, the NSC Minnesota Stars were already beset by a year’s worth of adversity one week into their inaugural season. Not only did they lose their opening match at Vancouver last Saturday, but they also lost their first-string goalkeeper, Louis Crayton, to an apparent season-ending knee injury, a couple of players were detained in Canada due to visa problems, and they were facing consecutive road matches at Carolina and Puerto Rico, traditionally two of the toughest venues to visit in American D2 soccer.
But, as the saying goes, that’s why they play the game. By the time 1,694 fans filed out of WakeMed Soccer Park, the RailHawks had suffered their first defeat of the season and an even rarer home setback. Still, it was not necessarily the loss that left RailHawk players and coaches shaking their heads in bewilderment and/or anger. It was the way they lost that had them coping with the fives stages of grief.
The more talented, supposedly fitter RailHawks found themselves beaten to the ball and spot the entire first half and a disproportionate amount of the second. Minnesota outshot Carolina 14-11 for the game, including 9-5 during the uninspiring first half. And, throughout the match, multiple orange-breasted RailHawks—Amir Lowery, John Gilkerson, etc.—contracted either colorblindness or amnesia, apparently forgetting they had shed last week’s new blue kits and constantly gifting the ball to the cerulean-clad Stars.
Matters started promising enough for Carolina. Cory Elenio saw his 9th minute strike cradled by Stars goalkeeper Joe Warren. In the 13th minute, forward Etienne Barbara looked to pick up where he left off following his debut brace against AC St. Louis when Josh Gardner delivered a ball forward and the streaking striker outran and outmuscled two defenders to gain possession and execute a side-angle shot that bounded just right of the goalpost.
After that, however, Minnesota began to dictate tempo and develop confidence. Andrei Gotsmanov’s 22nd minute shot blew just beyond the upper right corner. Barbara nearly struck back for the RailHawks in the 29th minute, but his pinpoint header off a short cross from Elenio was pawed away by Warren.
Finally, in the 37th minute, a Stars corner kick ricocheted around before dropping softly onto the pitch in front of the goal. It was at this instant that the RailHawks’ defenders chose a most inopportune time to unpack a picnic lunch and visit the beer garden behind section 307. In their absence, Minnesota’s Daniel Wasson chipped in what amounted to a six-yard penalty kick.
“[The goal] happened quick, but that guy shouldn’t have had that much time to bring it down,” lamented RailHawks defender Matt Bobo. “I think the ball even bounced, and then it came down and he shot it. There’s no way he should have had that much time in the six-yard box.”
In search of some scoring spark, RailHawks coach Martin Rennie made a halftime substitution, sending in Gregory Richardson for his 2010 debut. Although forced to find his footing under a pressure situation, Richardson’s presence paid immediate dividends. He created matchup problems for Minnesota, which in turn freed up other RailHawks for attacking runs. Carolina’s best scoring opportunity came in the 57th minute, when Richardson delivered a pass through the middle to a solo Barbara. Richardson was fouled on the play, but unfortunately, the line judge also ruled that Barbara was offside, cancelling his potential one-v.-one with Warren.
Warren also stopped a long-range strike from Gardner in the 58th minute, and then capped the Stars unexpected victory by swatting away Bobo’s close-range header of a Gardner cross. For the game, the 35-year-old Warren registered five saves en route to a clean sheet. Coming into the match, the consensus was that Warren — who struggled after subbing for Crayton against Vancouver — would be Minnesota’s weak link. Instead, he proved to be their man of the match.
“[Joe] really stepped up,” said Stars coach Manny Lagos. “He’s had that exposure and has been one of the best players in the league. He’s had some time off, but at the end of the day, Joe’s a great athlete and I was very happy he stepped up.”
“Obviously, I’m very happy,” continued an elated Lagos. “The guys played well in the first half. I thought we took the tempo of the game and kept that through the first half. When Carolina came at us in the second half, I thought we did a good job staying organized and committed to trying to get the points.”
“The bottom line is last week we won the game in the first half and this week we lost it in the first half,” said an exasperated Rennie. “Our first-half performance [tonight] was nowhere close to the standards we have set and expect. We have to hold our heads up and say that’s nowhere near good enough.
“Give credit to Minnesota,” continued Rennie. “To be honest, I was quite impressed with how they played. In the time I have been here, this was perhaps the worst performance we’ve ever had, but it was also one of the best performances I’ve seen from an away team coming in here.”
It bears pointing out that after scoring twice in 30 minutes against a 10-man St. Louis side last week, the RailHawks have now gone scoreless for 150 minutes against full strength competition. Still, for all the frustration over Carolina’s inability to create scoring opportunities, the truly vexing part of the Minnesota match was their disorganized, discombobulated defensive line, traditionally the RailHawks’ mainstay. Indeed, a winded Mark Schulte spent the final 10 minutes of the match keeping opponents at bay by clutching their jerseys.
“We’re just not where we need to be,” said a subdued Bobo. “We need to play a solid defensive game for 90 minutes and tonight we didn’t do that. Man, there’s a lot we need to work on right now, and this game showed it. So, any thoughts we had about having an impenetrable defense were shattered tonight.
“You know when it’s on and you know when it’s not on, and tonight it wasn’t anywhere close to being on.”
The RailHawks next take the field for a friendly against the Mexican Olympic National Team at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 25 at WakeMed Park. After a May 1 match at Rochester, Carolina’s next home league match is Friday, May 14 against yet another expansion franchise, the FC Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Until then, Rennie offers some final food for thought: “I think the important thing to recognize is that in the course of a season, you’re going to have some ups and downs. You feel down and disappointed, but that’s okay. It’s how you react that’s the most important thing, how you change the things that weren’t right and how you bounce back.
“We’re just not going to show up and steamroll every team that comes in here. That needs to be a reality check for anyone who thinks that, including any players who might think that.”