WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY—At the outset of his postgame press conference, Zack Schilawski stared down for several seconds at the match stat sheet resting on the media room podium.
“You scored two goals,” cracked one reporter, breaking the extended silence.
Schilawski cackled. “Thanks, I couldn’t believe it. I had to make sure.”
Indeed, the most believable aspect to the Carolina RailHawks’ 4-1 win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in Cary Saturday evening was that it extended the RailHawks’ extraordinary unbeaten streak at WakeMed Soccer Park to 17 games. Weather, a short preseason and an Easter weekend kept the 2014 home opener attendance to a relatively modest 4,007. However, they too received the full faith and credit that Carolina has provided their ticket holders for over a year now.
However, the RailHawks (1-0-1)—a team that struggled to score a lone goal at Indy Eleven last weekend—raced out to four goals this weekend. Fort Lauderdale (1-1-0)—a team that kept a clean sheet against Ottawa Fury FC last weekend—gave up four scores to Carolina. And Schilawski—the former NCAA champion and first-round MLS SuperDraftee who managed just three goals for Carolina in all of 2013—has already scored three goals in two games this year.
“Everybody’s asking where the goals are coming from this year,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “I’d love it to be Zack Schilawski scoring 15 or 20 goals.”
Schilawski might have some competition from teammate Enzo Martinez, who also notched a brace against the Strikers Saturday night. Like Schilawski, Martinez is a former member of an NCAA championship team and a first-round MLS draft pick. Tonight’s performance continues the reclamation of a player relishing his return to attack after spending his two seasons as a reservist for Real Salt Lake floundering about as a holding midfielder.
Still, for a while it appeared scoring even one goal would prove difficult against a Strikers defense that came ready to hunker down and defend their fort.
“I think they did a great job of coming in and sitting behind,” Martinez said. “They were behind the ball and really compact in the middle. They made things really hard for us.”
With the RailHawks dominating early possession but not mustering any shots, it finally fell to César Elizondo to stir the pot. Stationed on the left wing throughout the match, Elizondo rounded two Fort Lauderdale defenders and blazed a trail toward goal in the 26st minute. Once inside the box, Elizondo was pushed to ground by midfielder Chris Nurse, and the referee pointed to the spot. Martinez calmly converted the PK to give Carolina the 1-0 lead.
Forced to emerge from their defensive shell, the Strikers began to retain more possession and cut a few inroads into the Carolina defense. However, stretching their formation led to a costly mistake in the 41st minute. Justin Chavez, forced to move from midfield to center back in place of the injured Rafael Alves, dribbled toward the midline before offering a lazy lay off that was intercepted by an opportunistic Ty Shipalane. The speedy Shipalane raced directly toward goal before playing a ball ahead to Schilawski streaking off the right wing. Schilawski caught up to the weighted ball and one-touched a blast past goalkeeper Oka Nikolov for a 2-0 Carolina advantage.
“We thought we could pick their switches off, them going from one side to the other,” Schilawski explained. “It was just good positioning by Ty; he’s clever with how he defends and knowing how to jump those passes.”
Just two minutes into the second half, however, the Strikers appeared poised to once again validate the axiom about “the most dangerous score in soccer.” After Shawn Chin volleyed a delivery into the box, two RailHawks collided while trying to head away the clearance, allowing the ball to fall to the feet of former RailHawk Chris Nurse. Nurse pirouetted and rifled a left-footed shot past Carolina keeper Akira Fitzgerald to cut the lead in half.
Carolina wouldn’t pull away until the 72nd minute. Some exquisite link-up play culminated with Schilawski finding Martinez atop the box with a perfectly weighted through ball that dissected two Strikers. Martinez spun, split two more defenders and whistled the ball past Nikolov’s ear for a 3-1 lead.
With Fort Lauderdale’s comeback balloon now punctured, the RailHawks’ fourth score seemed inevitable, although it was far from academic. In the 76th, Elizondo gathered a free kick from Fitzgerald, drove lateral across the top of the box, and then delivered a diagonal through ball that Schilawski appeared to anticipate. Schilawski caught up to the ball before an off guard Nikolov, then rounded the keeper before poking home his brace.
“César gets it, picks his head up, and I just made a late run,” Schilawski said. “I was able to beat the keeper to the ball but didn’t feel great about hitting it first time for whatever reason. So, I cut it back and it still went in for me.”
For Clarke, the goal was the product of a forward finding his form.
“Zack had chances last year. He worked his socks off as he always does, but it just wasn’t going for him,” Clarke said. “Tonight, you look at the second goal. Last year, that might not have gone in for him, might have gone on the other side of the post. Tonight, it did. With strikers, it’s all about belief and confidence.”
Fort Lauderdale manager Günter Kronsteiner saluted Carolina’s formidable home unbeaten record, saying it commanded much concern going into the match. However, Kronsteiner did not believe the final score was indicative of the difference in quality between the two teams.
“We’re not the [New York] Cosmos or somebody who can come here and play offensively,” Kronsteiner observed. “But then we figured out the other team was not better than ours, in my opinion. Not at all.
“I think it was two teams which were nearly even most of the game, but of course they scored more goals so they deserved to win.”
Along with tonight’s scoring tandem, Clarke also lauded the solid contributions of his full backs, Kupono Low and Jordan Burt. In all, it was an outstanding performance at home by a team that must now venture to back on the road, where success has proven far more elusive over the past year. Carolina faces expansion team Ottawa Fury FC next week before returning to Cary on May 3 to host the reigning NASL champion New York Cosmos.
Can the RailHawks maintain their positive momentum? Clarke believes so.
“There’s a great vibe about the place,” Clarke contends. “They work hard for each other, and they want it.”