WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—The flaccid first half of Saturday’s match between the Carolina RailHawks and Fort Lauderdale Strikers was a sort of soccer Rorschach test. For detractors, it was indicative of everything they dislike about “organized kickball.” For aficionados, it was an inelegant chess match, a back-and-forth between two teams who understood the importance of the game’s outcome and didn’t want cede a critical mistake.
Of course, it’s hard to muster many mistakes both teams have only two off-target shots the entire half. And with league position and the reputation of the sport hanging in the balance, the RailHawks rose to the challenge after halftime, netting two goals for a 2-0 victory over the Strikers. The win snaps Carolina’s four-game winless skid and gives Fort Lauderdale one of their own.
The RailHawks entered the match with a hamstrung lineup, literally in the case of Nick Millington, who was unavailable along with leading scorer Brian Shriver, Austin da Luz and Jordan Graye due to injuries. What ensued was an opening stanza played mostly in the middle of the pitch, with the few Strikers’ sorties snuffed out by the stout play of Carolina center backs Julius James and Paul Hamilton. Meanwhile, the RailHawks’ only memorable threat came in the 41st minute when a Cesar Elizondo curler just inside the box couldn’t find the upper right corner.
Elizondo nearly put Carolina ahead two minutes into the second half. A tremendous service off the right wing by Kevin Rutkiewicz found Elizondo far post. The Costa Rican settled and shot, but his left-footer skimmed across the face of goal and right of the post.
The ultimate game-winner came in the 63rd minute. Following three consecutive RailHawks’ corner kicks, midfielder Kenney Walker delivered a dangerous service off the right wing into the box. An off-balance clearance by a Strikers’ defender found Breiner Ortiz just outside the area. His one-touch rocket from 19 yards out flew past goalkeeper Richard Sanchez for the 1-0 lead.
“To be honest, I don’t really remember what happened,” Ortiz said through a translator. “I just remember the ball coming back from a cross. I just got the ball and kicked it as hard as possible.”
It was a deserved moment for Ortiz, who missed the entire NASL spring season and then, after starting the opening four matches of the fall campaign, again fell out of favor with manager Colin Clarke. Since Ortiz returned to the starting XI the last two matches, Carolina has surrendered only one goal in the run of play, and only two scores in the run of the play over the six total matches Ortiz started this season.
So, it’s a bit ironic that both Ortiz and Clarke say the Colombian midfielder needs to focus on his offensive play. Ortiz didn’t even require his translator to immediately respond “offense” when asked whether he considers himself more offensive or defensive-minded.
“Delighted for Ortiz,” said the RailHawks’ gaffer. “I’ve talked to him time and time again, what he’s got to add to his game is to get forward and score goals. That was a hell of a strike tonight, great finish.”
Carolina nearly doubled their lead in the 75th minute. An Elizondo break for goal was thwarted by Sanchez. The loose ball in the box bounded to Ty Shipalane, but his open follow-up rippled the side netting.
Three minutes later, a streaking Elizondo outran the Strikers’ back line to reach a through ball and pierce the penalty box. Strikers’ defender Stefan Antonijevic slid from the left, but his outstretched leg took down Elizondo without touching the ball. Referee Robert Sibiga whistled the clear penalty, although he declined to book Antonijevic.
The lack of a card rankled the 4,215 RailHawks’ faithful in attendance, including Clarke.
“If you’re not going to send [Antonijevic] off, you’ve still got to give him a yellow card,” Clarke said. “It’s the same old problem we have with referees, it’s consistency. I have no idea why he didn’t send him off and what his reasoning was.”
Clarke referenced an incident prior to the match concerning the canary-clad Sanchez as a bit of foreshadowing regarding the referee’s judgment.
“I asked [the referee] before the match if it was OK for their goalkeeper to wear the yellow shirt, the same color as the team. And he said it was fine, so there you go.”
Nevertheless, after the takedown, substitute striker Brian Ackley stutter-stepped his PK into the lower right quadrant of the goal, the same spot Ortiz’s score settled earlier in the half.
Fort Lauderdale, which has now scored just one goal over its last four matches, was strikingly anemic on offense by managing only two shots the entire game, neither on frame. Although Strikers’ manager Günter Kronsteiner believed his team played well enough to eek out a draw, the result didn’t appear to surprise him.
“To lose against Carolina in an away game, this is not a big thing for us because I really believe this is a better team than we are right now,” he said.
“When we look at our forwards, this is not really the forwards I would like to have,” Kronsteiner continued. “This is something we have to live with in this season, and hopefully somebody comes and brings us a present, either money or a player.”
Saturday’s match also marked the most improved performance by midfielder Kenney Walker since joining the RailHawks last month. The maligned LA Galaxy loanee completed 80 percent of his passes (according to an unofficial tally kept by Triangle Offense), and over the past two games has become a go-to corner and free kick taker, reliably delivering pinpoint services into the area. And, Walker finally showed some defensive mettle last night with a few effective midfield slide tackles.
Walker, who admits he monitors social media via a fake Twitter account, said that he is finally getting fit after an early-season foot surgery and irregular reserve league play with the Galaxy.
“Coming here, I was excited and joyful to get out of LA and actually just get on the field and play,” Walker said. “I don’t look at it as a demotion, it’s just getting a chance to play. You get to walk into a locker room and get to know a whole new group of guys and create a whole new family.”
The win temporarily moves the RailHawks (4-2-3, 14 pts.) into a second-place tie in the NASL fall standings, pending the outcome of today’s pivotal match between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and New York Cosmos. Fort Lauderdale (3-2-4, 11 pts.) slips to sixth in the eight-team league.
However, Carolina doesn’t return to Cary until Oct. 26, and the interim embarks on a three-game road trip still running on spare tires. Clarke says that Shriver and da Luz will not be available for next week’s match at FC Edmonton, and Graye’s status remains questionable. The RailHawks have not won a game on the road all year, but they will likely have to accomplish that feat once or twice the next month if they harbor hopes of winning the NASL fall title.
“We’ve had four tough results for different reasons,” Clarke said. “And we questioned our mentality a little bit, whether we’re going to be good enough to win this. And I think they answered some of those questions tonight. We had a long, hard week, threw a lot of things at them. I think they showed tonight that they do have the heart, the character and the fight to have a good run at this championship.”