After amassing merely five points over the first five matches this season, trepidation was high for the Carolina RailHawks entering a tortuous four-game road trip to the most difficult venues in D2 soccer. Although their excursion is only half completed, Carolina has already used the time away to find their footing and confidence. On Thursday, the RailHawks won for the first time ever at Puerto Rico. Today, it was the Montreal Impact’s turn as Carolina won for the first time at Saputo Stadium before a reported capacity crowd of 13,034.
Like the match against Puerto Rico four days ago, RailHawks head coach Martin Rennie again deployed a more defensive lineup, opting to start Floyd Franks and Marques Davidson at midfield over Daniel Paladini, Cory Elenio and Gregory Richardson.
The biggest difference maker, however, was the return of Greg Shields to the right back position after missing three matches due to injury. Against Puerto Rico, the RailHawks employed tenacity and lady luck to withstand a relentless Islanders attack. With Shields—who Rennie regards as “the best right back in the league”—back to solidify the back line, the Impact—who perhaps were already looking ahead to their friendly against AC Milan this Wednesday—never mustered much of a scoring threat. What few offensive inroads they made were quickly shut down by Matt Bobo, Mark Schulte and goalkeeper Eric Reed, who recorded his second clean sheet this season.
Striker Etienne Barbara also returned to the starting lineup after sitting out all but the final minutes against Puerto Rico. After several efforts by Josh Gardner came up just short, left back David Hayes launched a pinpoint long ball from the backfield in the 20th minute that cleared the Impact defense and found a streaking Barbara. Managing to stay onside, Barbara maintained control before emerging past three defenders and calmly poking the ball past goalkeeper Matt Jordan for his club-leading fourth goal of the season.
Carolina would nurse that 1-0 lead the rest of the match with a staunch defense and by retaining possession using the sharpest midfield spacing and passing this season. Montreal managed two scoring threats in the second half. In the 63rd minute, David Testo took a loose rebound and made an acrobatic volley that may have grazed a lunging Reed’s fingertips before ricocheting off the left post.
In full attack mode, Montreal’s last, best gasp was in the 89th minute, when a foolhardy leg sweep by Elenio (subbing for Matt Watson) gave the Impact a free kick along the end line just outside the left side of the penalty box. A clever chip found the head of Impact striker Roberto Brown, whose point-blank header somehow flew wide right.
By the time four minutes of stoppage time arrived, a pushing but exhausted Impact were unable to derail the fresh-legged Andriy Budnyy, who came on for Barbara in the 79th minute. Forcing a turnover in Montreal’s backfield, “The Train” chugged past Montreal’s defense before blasting a low shot past Jordan to account for the final score.
“When the season started, we didn’t quite find our rhythm as quickly as we did last year,” said Rennie. “But, now we’re finding it. We have good players and they’re playing with confidence. Our team is really growing and getting to know each other, and [they are] understanding the game plan and sticking to it.”
After a week-long break, the RailHawks embark on the Pacific Northwest leg of their road trip with matches against the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, both perennial league powers and 2011 MLS newcomers.
“We need to keep the same application and work rate, and continue to put the team first and above one’s self,” said Rennie. “If we do that, then we have a good chance against anyone.”