WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—For the second straight week, the Carolina RailHawks fell behind to an opponent at WakeMed Soccer Park. For the second straight week, the RailHawks and Zack Schilawski, the team’s leading scorer, clawed back to tie the match in the second half and appeared poised to grab a win. And for the second straight week, the RailHawks ended up losing the match anyway.
After grabbing an early lead that lasted through halftime, the RailHawks surrendered three second-half goals on their way to a 3-2 loss to FC Edmonton in front of 4,666 fans. The defeat is Carolina’s third in their last four home league games. The road win is only FC Edmonton’s second this year, the other one being at cellar-dwelling Indy Eleven during the NASL spring season. And this is FC Edmonton’s first win on the RailHawks’ home ground, having lost each of their previous six visits to Cary.
After surrendering four goals to the Tampa Bay Rowdies last week at home, the RailHawks returned goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald to the starting XI. Coincidentally, Fitzgerald hasn’t played since Carolina’s 6-1 loss at FC Edmonton to end the spring season. Fitzgerald then injured his thumb in training and was replaced by Scott Goodwin during the RailHawks’ U.S. Open Cup run and the opening five games of the fall season.
However, Carolina was without defender Daniel Scott, who was suspended due to being sent off last week against Tampa Bay. Scott was replaced by Austen King, who hasn’t played since committing his own red card offense against Indy Eleven last month. More on King in a moment.
On the other hand, FC Edmonton was without Daryl Fordyce, the team’s leading goal scorer this year. Eddies manager Colin Miller said Fordyce was suffering from tendinitis in his heel and was given the week off to recover.
Carolina pounced on the visitors early. In the 12th minute, Jordan Graye delivered a laser-line cross along the right end line that found a leaping Schilawski, whose glancing header ricocheted off the underside of the crossbar and landed across the goal line.
“Jordan Graye did a good job getting forward,” Schilawski said. “I got it wide to him and then made a near post run. Great ball from him, and the finish was just trying to direct it back toward the goal. Luckily it snuck under the bar.”
The remainder of the opening stanza was an uneventful back-and-forth. Carolina nearly doubled their lead in the 38th minute when Ty Shipalane’s angled shot flew over the goal. In the 43rd minute, FC Edmonton’s Albert Watson got on the end of a cross in front of goal, but his header also sailed high and wide.
At halftime, Miller said his team made some key adjustments.
“We started with a back four, a midfield four and one plus one [up top],” Miller explained. “Then I changed it to [a 4-1-4-1]. I did that because we’ve played the last two or three games like that and we looked sound defensively. So I thought Carolina was starting to get too many easy passes in the first half, and once we made that transition, all of sudden the game changed. We started to win second balls, we were closer and the team as a unit was more compact.”
With renewed pressure in Carolina’s backfield, the change paid dividends for FC Edmonton starting in the 53rd minute. Kupono Low, pushing forward from his left back position, committed a turnover that triggered a FC Edmonton counter off the right wing. A cross into the box banged meekly off the feet of defender Connor Tobin and onto the waiting feet of Chad Burt. Burt calmly laid the the ball off to an unmarked Lance Laing, who slid his shot between Fitzgerald’s legs to tie score at 1-1.
The Eddies took the lead in the 64th minute. Low failed to quickly close down midfielder Michael Nonni driving off the right wing or deflect Nonni’s cross into the box. The ball eventually found Ritchie Jones, who scissor-kicked a half-volley for a goal.
In the 73rd minute, the RailHawks were the beneficiaries of a controversial penalty call from referee Chris Penso. As Jun Marques Davidson delivered a long ball forward into the box, Schilawski fell to ground just inside the area upon contact from defender Eddie Edward. Renso pointed to the spot, to the disbelief of FC Edmonton.
The large video board at WakeMed Soccer Park stands just behind the south goal where the penalty was whistled. The board broadcasts the RailHawks’ live online match stream throughout the game, including any replays. After the penalty was called, the video board twice showed a replay of the penalized play, each time renewing the ire of the FC Edmonton players and coaches.
The FC Edmonton coaching staff even eventually directed aggravation at Carolina staffers for continuing to show the replay. The sequence recalled a similar sequence during last month’s win over Ottawa Fury FC, when the fourth official delivered a request to the technical staff during the game to cease showing replays on the video board of calls that went against the home team.
After the game, Miller said he disagreed with both the penalty call and repeatedly showing the replay on the video board.
“There’s minimal contact and [Schilawski] is going down as if he was hit with a bag of hammers or something like that,” Miller said.
“We didn’t agree with the penalty decision in live play,” Miller continued. “And then when we saw it on the big screen, it reinforced our beliefs. I can assure you had that been shown at a Rangers-Celtic game in Scotland, the referee would have been taken out in a wooden box.
“You didn’t see anyone from Carolina saying it was definitely a penalty … It’s a dumb thing to show a controversial replay like that, that’s for sure.”
To his credit, even RailHawks manager Colin Clarke said after the match that he did not agree with the penalty call.
“Our penalty looked like a joke,” Clarke said. “Zack sort of tripped and fell over, and [the referee] gave a penalty. It wasn’t good.”
Nevertheless, Schilawski stepped to the spot and calmly slotted home his penalty kick to equalize the game at 2-2. His brace gives Schilawski eight league goals this year, tied for second-most in the NASL. However, Schilawski enters law school at the University of North Carolina next week, and his future status with the RailHawks remains uncertain at best.
With the proverbial wind at their backs, the RailHawks pushed forward to secure the much-needed three points. A few forays into the box were left wanting, notably a through ball by Nick Zimmerman and an ensuing shot by Ty Shipalane that rippled the side netting.
However, it was during the third of five minutes of added time that FC Edmonton found their own controversial game-winner. As midfielder Horace James dribbled from right-to-left along the top of the 18-yard box, he was tripped by a ridiculously ill-timed tackle from Austen King. King immediately planted his head into the turf, realizing his blunder. However, Renso also pointed to the spot and awarded FC Edmonton a penalty kick.
Second-half substitute Neal Hlavaty stepped to the spot, and although Fitzgerald got a left hand on his PK, the blast continued into the net for the 3-2 win.
Clarke was equally apoplectic about this penalty call, as well. He agreed with the foul but didn’t believe James was completely inside the box at the time.
“You’ve got to be 110 percent sure that it’s inside the box if you’re going to give that [penalty] in the last 30 seconds of the game,” Clarke said.
And to his credit, Miller said he also didn’t completely agree with the penalty call against Carolina, either.
“Our penalty at the end looked soft,” Miller said. “Having only seen it live, I was very surprised at the decision.”
The vast of majority of FC Edmonton’s attacks—and the plays that resulted in all three goals—came off Edmonton’s right side. In listening to Miller, that may have been only part of a concerted strategy.
“Not to put down any of the Carolina players obviously, but there’s not a player in this league that likes to be pressurized when he has possession of the ball,” Miller explained. “So, we want from front to back to be able to pressure defenders, because as you saw with [Carolina] tonight, there are times when they are put under pressure and an element of panic comes into play.”
And that pressure contributed to the two biggest reasons for the RailHawks’ loss. First were copious turnovers in the midfield under the pressure Miller spoke about. Indeed, Enzo Martinez had at least eight himself during the first half.
But more disconcerting is the chronic defensive miscues that continue to plague the RailHawks on the road and now at home. For his part, Clarke contended he thought the defense performed well tonight and that King “did great.”
However, when asked after the match if there is any need or plans to shore up the team’s defense, Clarke’s initial response was short and cryptic.
“We will work on that and keep you informed,” he said. “I think there’s a need on both sides of the ball still to continue to look. If we can make something happen that we think is positive for the team between now and the end of the season we’ll do it. We’re not going to stand pat.”
Rudimentary mathematics reveals that the RailHawks are now sixth in the combined yearly league standings, two points outside of the fourth and final playoff spot with 11 matches remaining. However, a practical assessment reveals that Carolina has already dropped nine points at home during the fall season, including six points to lower-table Indy Eleven and FC Edmonton. Making up ground will be more difficult as the quality of opponents increases and the RailHawks return to the road.
Indeed, Carolina travels to Tampa Bay to face the Rowdies next Saturday. The RailHawks then return to Cary to host the Atlanta Silverbacks on Aug. 30.
During the postgame press conferences following tonight’s loss, joyous yelps could be heard coming from the FC Edmonton locker room, an increasingly familiar sound over the last several RailHawks home games. With the Eddies’ cheers echoing into the media room, Clarke said his team needs to do the thing that’s probably furthest from their psyche.
“Right now it’s about staying positive,” Clarke said. “We’ve still got a lot of games to go and a lot of points to play for. We’re right in the mix. To me, it’s still right in our hands. If we win our games, we’ll get to the playoffs.”