TOYOTA FIELD/WEBCAST—When the Carolina RailHawks completed a dramatic comeback victory over Minnesota United FC two weeks ago at WakeMed Soccer Park, that victory plus ensuing circumstances meant Carolina had two games—one at home, one on the road—to earn two points and win the North American Soccer League (NASL) Spring season title. Beat the Atlanta Silverbacks last Saturday in Cary, NC? Carolina wins the Spring. Win or draw with the San Antonio Scorpions on Independence Day? The RailHawks wins the Spring.
Neither of those events happened, as the Scorpions defeated the RailHawks 2-0 Thursday night in San Antonio. That loss combined with the Silverbacks win at Minnesota this evening means Atlanta wins the NASL Spring season and the right to host the NASL Soccer Bowl in November.
Carolina’s July 4th task was further complicated by an injury/suspension/Et cetera-riddled lineup. Again missing were the injury Ty Shipalane and Julius James, and joining them on the inactive list were team assist leader Austin da Luz (suspended for yellow accumulation) and center back Kevin Rutkiewicz. That left RailHawks manager Colin Clarke with a jerry-rigged starting XI that included Jonathan Greenfield and Austen King.
Still, the RailHawks nearly took the lead in the 38th minute. Brian Shriver drove goal line off the right flank and delivered a deft chip over the head of Scorpions keeper Jeremy Vuolo to a leaping Cesar Elizondo. Elizondo’s header appeared true, but it ultimately bounded off the woodwork.
Carolina held serve until another trademark RailHawks defensive letdown in the waning moments of the first half. RailHawks goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald deflected away a short-range shot, but the rebound fell to an unmarked Hans Denissen, who easily converted the sitter for a 1-0 halftime lead.
To their credit, the RailHawks came out aggressive to start the second half. A drive and snap shot by Elizondo in the 60th minute pulled just wide left. In the 66th minute, Elizondo gathered the rebound off a save by Vuolo, but his netter was nullified for offsides. And in the 68th minute, an open Shriver delivered a short-range curler that caromed off the right post.
In the meantime, Akira Fitzgerald played virtually one-man defense, holding the Scorpions at bay and preserving the one-goal deficit. But even Fitzgerald couldn’t cover for more lax RailHawks defense in the 87th minute as Denissen score again, sealing the Scorpions’ win and the RailHawks’ ignominious fate.
Despite his failure to finish, Brian Shriver was one of the RailHawks’ few bright spots for the game, joined by Fitzgerald and Nick Millington, who contributed tenacious defense and savvy midfield distribution. The rest of the lineup ranged from lackluster to simply woeful, including Jonthan Greenfield and captain Floyd Franks, both of whom were substituted off in the 72nd minute.
For five consecutive league games, the RailHawks trailed entering the 80th minute. And for five consecutive league games, the RailHawks managed either a draw or win. Carolina’s luck ran out tonight, as winning five of six home games this Spring wasn’t enough to compensate for not winning a single road match.
Much will be made of the RailHawks’ league loss after resting most of their starters for the June 27 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals match at Real Salt Lake. However, the fault lies not with bad karma but instead bad hamstrings. Carolina played their final four matches this Spring (including league and U.S. Open Cup) without James, their best defender, who again pulled his hamstring during training prior to the Minnesota United match. Carolina went on to give up eight goals over that span.
Moreover, the importance of Ty Shipalane was brought to unfortunate bear. Shipalane tore his hammy during the 1-1 draw with FC Edmonton on June 16. Carolina netted three goals against Minnesota on June 22, but it totaled only a single goal over its last three matches.
The RailHawks now enters the July break with a far less buoyant future. There’s a lot of talent that could (re)emerge for the Fall season, including James, Shipalane, Nick Addlery and others. But, a dramatic, gut-wrenching collapse like this is difficult to recover from, especially when there will be an additional team—the New York Cosmos—competing for the Fall crown.
This Spring saw the RailHawks atop the league standings most of the season, set two new club attendance records and defeat two MLS sides in Open Cup competition. The NASL Spring season title appeared the fitting, even inevitable capper. Ultimately, the Silverbacks earned four points on the road over their final two games, while the RailHawks couldn’t even muster the two points needed to finish the job. The Silverbacks finished like champions; the RailHawks did not.