The Carolina RailHawks’ match against Crystal Palace Baltimore was advertised as “Bark in the Park” night, with fans invited to bring their pet canines to WakeMed Soccer Park. Unfortunately, the RailHawks’ performance turned out to be the biggest dog of the night, with this home game ending up much like the last two against NSC Minnesota and Tampa Bay: an unsatisfying result against a clearly outclassed opponent, as the RailHawks (3-2-5, 14 points) drew with Crystal Palace, 1-1.
Fresh off its undefeated four-game road stretch and advancement into the second round of the U.S. Open Cup (USOC) tournament, the Carolina RailHawks entered its first home league match in over a month with an understandable spring in its step. For their part, Baltimore’s marketing department advertised the game as not only an inaugural “local derby” between teams that will face each other four times during regular season, but also the continuation of an “old feud” between Crystal Palace coach Jim Cherneski and RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie, dating back to Rennie’s days with the Cleveland City Stars when both teams were members of USL-2.
The RailHawks are battling a severe injury bug that put Josh Gardner and Marques Davidson in street clothes and kept goal-leader Etienne Barbara out of the starting lineup. In addition, in setting the RailHawks’ starters, Rennie seemed to have next Tuesday’s USOC match at Charleston on his mind. He chose to hold defender and team captain Mark Schulte along with midfielder Amir Lowery out as reserves, presumably to rest them after playing 90 minutes against Charlotte three days earlier. In their place, Rennie inserted David Hayes back at left fullback and, in a curious move, moved regular DL John Gilkerson over to center back and Brad Rusin to a defensive midfield position.
Baltimore (3-6-3, 11 points) was coming off both a loss at Rochester last week and being eliminated from the USOC last Tuesday by USL-2 side Richmond Kickers. So, with the echoes of the national anthem still reverberating around the park, the RailHawks were the early aggressors, as Gregory Richardson, Hayes, and Cory Elenio launched mid- to long-range shots inside the opening four minutes of play.
Indeed, nearly all the RailHawks’ first half shots were from long range, with little effort given to working the ball into the box. Carolina registered 10 shots during the first half, but Baltimore goalkeeper Evan Bush only had to ward off two saves. In the 40th minute, a blast by Daniel Paladini sailed over the goal before splitting the uprights supporting the scoreboard for a would-be field goal. Unfortunately, that was neither the type of goal nor the three points that was needed this night. The rest of the time, Baltimore attempted to stymie the RailHawks’ first half attack by employing a deft combination of 12 fouls and three yellow cards.
If Carolina’s offense was impatient, then Baltimore’s was inert, as Crystal Palace only connected with three first half shots (one on target). However, the RailHawks proved to be Baltimore’s best scoring option. In the 22nd minute, a hurried clearance by Hayes deflected off defender Matt Bobo before rattling off the crossbar and playing pinball between the turf and the inside roof of the net. As the RailHawks hung their heads, Baltimore’s players could barely muster the chutzpah to celebrate such dumb luck. “That was a freak goal,” said Rennie. “I haven’t seen too many like that.” Regardless, Baltimore would take a 1-0 lead into intermission.
Coming out for the second half, Schulte came on for an injured Gilkerson. However, the RailHawks’ renewed determination was the biggest halftime adjustment. It paid dividends in the 50th minute, when Richardson drove into the box before laying a pass back for a streaking Floyd Franks. Before he could take a shot, he was tackled from behind by Baltimore’s Lucio Gonzaga. Referee Matthew Foerster blew the whistle, and Franks stepped up to the spot and converted the penalty kick, his first goal as a RailHawk.
“There have been a few games [this season] where I’ve been the guy who was supposed to take [penalty kicks], but we wouldn’t get one or I’d be out by the time we got one”, said Franks. “Tonight, I got fouled and was standing there, and the guys were like, ‘You want this?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’”
Minutes later, Rennie ratcheted up the pressure with three more substitutions, the most notable being the debut of midfielder Tiyi Shipalane. The speedy South African, who has played professionally in America since 2006, came on for Cory Elenio, ineffective throughout the first half against Baltimore’s quick outside defenders. Not a problem for Shipalane, who, with his shorts facing the wrong way, proceeded to dissect the right side of the Crystal Palace defense on several occasions. The most sensational took place in the 63rd minute, when Shipalane juked past at least three defenders on his way to the byline, where his close-range cross was somehow whiffed by a trailing Barbara and Daniel Paladini.
“I’ve been out of action for a while, so it was good to be out here playing with my new teammates,” said Shipalane. “They made me feel welcome, and I just wanted to bring something positive to the team.” Asked about wearing his shorts backwards, Shipalane stated that was intentional. “I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid. That’s my thing. In this game, you have to find a way to be an individual. Plus, I like that when I go past defenders, they can see [my number on the back of my shorts]. That’s my favorite thing.”
Absent Shipalane, the rest of the RailHawks failed to muster many scoring threats the rest of the match and had to concern themselves with beating back the occasional Baltimore counterattack. For the game, the RailHawks outshot Baltimore 17-8, but Carolina had to resign themselves to staving off defeat and garnering one point in the league standings.
“From a coaching perspective, there’s a lot of effort out there and a lot of [scoring] chances being created, but if you don’t take them then you don’t win the game and that’s very disappointing for us,” said Rennie.
“That’s the way things seem to be at home for the moment,” continues Rennie. “Away from home, we are playing and flowing well. But so far, we haven’t gotten any rhythm at home. Part of that is because we haven’t taken [advantage of] our chances. I believe that if keep creating chances we’ll start to take them. And if we don’t, we’ll find guys who can.”
After travelling to play the Charleston Battery on Tuesday, June 22, in the second round of the USOC, the RailHawks return home next Saturday, June 26, for a league match against the Montreal Impact, the defending league champions.