WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY – After a week of torrential rain and gray skies, the storm clouds cleared just in time for 2,728 partisans to settle comfortably into the autumnal confines of WakeMed Soccer Park and enjoy high-caliber, high-stakes battle between the Carolina RailHawks and the Austin Aztex. Both teams entered the match looking to clinch first place in their respective conferences and preferential seeding going into next week’s USSF D2 playoffs.
In the end, the determined, proficient RailHawks (13-9-8, 47 pts.) won out over the dangerous Aztex (15-6-8, 53 pts.) by a score of 3-1. Winning their final regular season match gives Carolina a three-point advantage over Vancouver for the NASL Conference crown and the second seed in the playoffs. In order to unseat the RailHawks, Vancouver will need to defeat the tenacious Portland Timbers Saturday night by a margin of three or more goals.
Carolina boasted a starting lineup that has seen them through to four victories and one draw in their last seven league matches. Meanwhile, Austin countered with their usual formidable XI minus forward Eddie Johnson, the league’s second-leading goal scorer. The absence of Johnson’s attacking threat would prove noticeable and costly for the otherwise game Aztex.
From the opening whistle, the RailHawks were the aggressors, pressing the league’s highest-scoring team before they could strike first. However, most of Carolina’s innumerable first-half forays into the front third came up empty. Forward Gregory Richardson and left back Kupono Low feasted on an Aztex defense that appeared unwilling or unable to close down the flanks in lieu of packing into the box. Over and over, Richardson rocketed point-blank crosses towards the goal only to have a defender clear away the threat or one of Carolina’s strikers fail to convert the chance. Such was the fate of RailHawk Tom Heinemann in the very first minute and the 32nd; it also happened to Daniel Paladini in the 12th.
A close-range header by Austin’s prolific forward Max Griffin found the side netting. Then, in the 43rd minute, a Paladini free kick targeted for the peak of Brad Rusin’s 6-foot-5 frame instead found the head of Austin’s Kieron Bernard, whose would-be clearance deflected into his own goal.
“I screened [the defender] and really didn’t get anything on [the ball],” recounted Rusin. “I don’t think he saw it coming and it hit his head and went in. I was in the right spot, and luckily he didn’t react the right way.”
Carolina ebullience was short-lived, however, as the Aztex struck back during first-half stoppage time. A Lance Watson short-corner found Max Griffin in the goalmouth. Perhaps expecting an offside call that was not forthcoming, time seemed to stop for the RailHawks defense as they watching Griffin casually put away a chip shot to equalize 1-1 at intermission.
The second half brought more chances for the RailHawks…and more missed opportunities. Richardson, still blistering Austin’s back third, failed to put away shots on goal in the 51st and 62nd minutes. In the 70th minute, another Richardson cross was whiffed by Heinemann before Matt Watson sent the rebound sailing over the goal.
In the 73rd minute, RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie made a curious and significant substitution, replacing Richardson with team scoring leader Etienne Barbara. Barbara’s entry was welcome and unquestioned, but the decision to remove the dangerous Richardson raised more than a few eyebrows.
“It’s just a feeling you sometimes get. I was saying to [assistant coach] Paul Ritchie [before the substitution] that it’s really harsh taking Gregory off because he’s playing so well. And, I know at least one player turned around and looked at me. But, I just had a feeling that Etienne was going to go on and score. Sometimes you get that gut feeling—you can’t really put your finger on it, but you go with it.”
Barbara nearly vindicated Rennie in the 77th minute, when his breakaway drive into the right side of the box ended with a shot swallowed up by Austin goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo. Finally, in the 85th minute, Heinemann sent a clever through-ball ahead to a streaking Watson, who dribbled in before laying the ball off to Barbara for the go-ahead put-away.
“There was only one defender, and it was me and [Watson] against that defender,” said Barbara. “Watson could have finished it, but [thankfully] he passed the ball to me and it was an open goal.”
With Austin pushing men forward, the RailHawks enjoyed (and squandered) several counterattacking opportunities while staving off the Aztex attack. The coup de grace came in the 90th minute, when Heinemann—who had fumbled away scoring chances all night—sent a skimmer into Gallardo’s waiting mitts. But, whereas Gallardo had gobbled up eight saves previously, this one would prove a howler. With the ghost of Robert Green lurking about, the ball spurted through Gallardo’s arms and rolled meekly across the goal line. As Heinemann celebrated and Rennie leapt into Ritchie’s arms, Gallardo was left to grapple with both his miscue and the celebratory streamers tossed by RailHawks’ supporters that quickly entangled the crestfallen keeper.
Barbara’s goal was his team-leading ninth of the season, while Heinemann’s gifted goal was his fourth in just six games since joining the RailHawks.
“We were playing well, and we were creating a lot of chances,” said Rennie. “It was getting frustrating that we weren’t taking them. But, in the end we managed to and we got a good win.
“Austin is a very good team going forward, so you have to attack them and get after them defensively. That was a big part of what we were trying to do. If you attack, that’s a good way to defend, and that’s what we did.”
Carolina must now wait for the result of Vancouver’s match Saturday night to know who they will play in the first round of the playoffs, which begins this Wednesday. If the RailHawks hold onto the second seed, they will open with a home-away clash against the NSC Minnesota Stars, who actually beat Carolina twice this season.
Still, Rennie feels this is a different RailHawks team entering the championship run. “It’s been an interesting season because we’ve done reasonably well during the regular season, but there’s never been a feel-good factor until last week. But, I’d rather get it now than two months ago. When you’re coaching going into the playoffs, you want that confidence, and I think it’s there right now.”