Puerto Rico Islanders celebrate USSF D-2 championship win Carolina RailHawks
  • Carolina RailHawks
  • Puerto Rico Islanders celebrate USSF D-2 championship win Carolina RailHawks

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY — Saturday evening began as one of extraordinary positives for the Carolina RailHawks. The club hosted the first league championship in its four-year history before a crowd of 5,074, unofficially the largest attendance for a league match at WakeMed Soccer Park in three years.

Unfortunately, the RailHawks’ successful season and exhilarating playoff run ended in disappointing fashion as Carolina drew 1-1 with the Puerto Rico Islanders in the second leg of the USSF D-2 Pro League championship. When combined with the 2-0 Islanders’ win over the RailHawks last Sunday in Bayamón, the final 3-1 aggregate score earned the eighth-seeded La Tropa Naranja its first league playoff title and an oversized dinner plate forged especially for the winner of this single-season USSF D-2 Pro League.

Just as the home team’s announced “Orange out” fail to materialize because, well, people don’t own many carrot-colored overcoats suited for 40-degree temperatures, so too did the RailHawks’ plan to hold the Islanders’ at bay while chipping away at a two-goal deficit fizzle in a matter of minutes.

In front of a sizable contingent of Puerto Rico supporters occupying section 302, Islanders’ midfielder Sandy Gbandi, who scored the winning goal in last Sunday’s match, took control of a cross into the box in the eighth minute and, after maneuvering around a couple of vacationing defenders, casually fired a shot past RailHawks’ goalkeeper Eric Reed.

“It seemed like people stopped in the corner because the guy was pushing [Cory] Elenio over,” said RailHawks’ defender Brad Rusin. “But, I guess the referee let it play on, the guy played a ball into [Kendall] Jagdeosingh, he took a touch, and there were two guys in front of me. Gbandi got it, cut one way, and shot it. Not to blame the refereeing, but it should have been a foul down in the corner, but it happens.”

Tom Heinemann heads in a goal during finals match versus Puerto Rico

Now armed with a three-goal advantage, an Islanders’ victory seemed a fait accompli. However, only three minutes later, RailHawks’ midfielder Floyd Franks sent a long ball into the box, where it found Tom Heinemann, Carolina’s late-season savior, who put a textbook header past Islanders’ keeper Bill Gaudette to cut the overall score to 3-1.

Facing the same two-goal hill as the beginning of the match, the RailHawks would need to replicate the scoring barrages that secured previous playoff victories over NSC Minnesota and Montreal. Alas, there would be no late-game heroics this night.

With the Islanders not actively pushing forward the rest of the match, Carolina outshot their opponent 18-10. The RailHawks’ best scoring opportunities came compliments of a series of free kicks stationed just outside the 18-yard box. The first came in the 23rd minute, when Kupono Low’s bender barely failed to dip below the crossbar.

In the 58th minute, a run-of-play, left-footed blast by Daniel Paladini was stopped by a diving Gaudette, who later blocked another rocket from Etienne Barbara in the 71st minute.

RailHawks’ manager Martin Rennie unloaded his bench, inserting Gregory Richardson, Josh Gardner, Allan Russell and Tiyi Shipalane as second-half substitutes. The little-seen Shipalane, a quicksilver midfielder who became a bit of a fan favorite during his limited playing time this season, had not seen league action since the Aug. 14 loss at Crystal Palace Baltimore.

“He beats people one-v.-one,” said Rennie. “He doesn’t do a lot defensively, but we felt if it was a situation where we really needed to go for it, which we did, then he could help us. He did, but unfortunately we stopped giving him the ball…and in the end that was a factor.”

By the 88th minute, the RailHawks were forced to desperately push forward with a 2-4-4 formation. With only two defenders stationed back, Islanders’ forward Nick Addlery counterattacked past Rusin, who brought down the striker in the box. The referee awarded a penalty kick and sent Rusin off with a red card.

However, Reed got his fingertips on Addlery’s ensuing PK, deflecting it off the post. In stoppage time, Paladini, who already had one free kick blocked by Gaudette, sent another towards the upper left corner of the goal. However, a leaping Gaudette swatted away that opportunity, as well, securing the Islanders’ championship.

“I just told Gaudette [that] he saved them,” said Paladini. “He was picking stuff out of the corners that should have gone in… The first [free kick] wasn’t too good, but that last one I took I thought was in. It was in the corner and [Gaudette] just picked it out. He did that with a couple of my shots, too.”

“It was a championship game, so everyone was on their front foot,” said an elated Gaudette. “I have to credit the guys in front of me. They were blocked shots, throwing their body in front of the ball, heading the ball out—every goalkeeper knows he’s nothing without the guys in front of him battling.”

After the match, Paladini answered the mystery over why he did not play during the opening leg match at Puerto Rico last weekend, explaining he was both recovering from first-degree hamstring pull and, more significantly, had already garnered two yellow cards during the playoffs. A third yellow in Puerto Rico would have made Paladini ineligible for the final home match.

“It’s a 90-minute game, anything can happen,” said Paladini. “We waited until the last 15 minutes last game to get a couple of goals, so there was still belief. It was a good response from us that we got a quick goal back. I thought in my heart that we were going to actually come out and win this game tonight. But, it ended up the wrong way.”

The win is also a testament to the resiliency of the Islanders, who, in addition to regular USSF D-2 competition, made a run into the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League this season and won the CFU Club Championship this May.

“You don’t even know,” sighed Gaudette. “We traveled from Vancouver to LAX, LAX to Miami, Miami to Honduras, played the next day, traveled back…it’s tough, and obviously we’re not a L.A. Galaxy or Red Bulls with a private jet that can ship out right after the game. It’s a true testament to the guys and how much hard work they put in. I’m just so excited right now words can’t describe it. I’m so happy for the guys [and] our organization, who has really sacrificed a lot to put us all over the country and the world.”

For Rennie, the championship was a disappointing finale. “Over the course of the two games, we didn’t perform at the level that we [have been],” said Rennie. “A lot of damage was done in Puerto Rico; we knew it was going to be hard coming back from two [goals], but coming back from three was even harder.”

For the 35-year-old coach, it is the second time in his young career that he has guided a team to the league championship finals during his second year with the club, having won the USL-2 championship with the Cleveland City Stars in 2008.

“It’ll take time to reflect on it, and probably after that I’ll be able to take a lot of positives out of it,” said a pensive Rennie. “But, at the moment, it’s just real disappointing. The goal wasn’t to get to the final, the goal was to win the final. It’s great that we won the NASL Conference, but when you get to a final you want to win it. I’ve been fortunate to have won finals before, but it’s certainly painful to lose it. I just want to take it all in so it hurts a lot and motivates me even more in the future. Starting off my career coaching, you need nights like this to drive you on sometimes.”

Still, after the sting of losing the finals wears off a bit, the RailHawks will be able to take satisfaction out of an otherwise successful season on the pitch. Despite a revolving rash of injuries that decimated their season-opening backline, the RailHawks set a club record for road victories, won their conference, reached the playoffs for the second consecutive year, won their first playoff series in franchise history and reached the league championship finals.

“We have a great team, and we made a great run,” said Heinemann. “Obviously we wanted to win tonight, but I think we need to take the positives. For a franchise only four years into existence to make a run like this and have two back-to-back seasons like we did is nothing to scoff at. It was definitely fun down the stretch, [but] it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this last one.”