WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARYWe began the evening with an early dinner at the home of friends in the countryside outside Chapel Hill. We lingered a little long and then arrived at Wake Med just in time to witness the unsettling image of RailHawks midfielder Matt Watson writhing in pain on the visitor sideline, attended by four or five trainers and staff.

Watson looked utterly strickenhe had the collar of his shirt in his teethbut he may have been reacting also to the dread of a second debilitating injury to his wheels this season. While John Cunliffe took his place in the 17th minute, the stretcher was sent away and Watson went off the field on crutches and, apparently, to an ambulance. Word came later that his fibula was broken and his season, which was also disrupted by a knee injury, is apparently over.

It was an unfortunately sour note to an otherwise workmanlike, convincing 2-0 victory over the Montreal Impact. [Stat box here.] This result, combined with a near-simultaneous draw by the Charleston Battery, means that the RailHawks finish in second place and have the home advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Their first-round opponent will be the Vancouver Whitecaps, and the first of two legs will be played Thursday, Sept. 24 at Swangard Stadium in Vancouver.

Andriy Budnyy started again at striker in Martin Rennie’s 4-5-1 formation, and it was evident that the game plan was to play long balls over the top to him. Delivery after air-mail delivery soared his way. In the 36th, for example, Mark Schulte launched a ball from a position in the back, which Budnyy met with his head at the far post.

That ball went straight to Montreal keeper Matt Jordan, but the crowd was rousedincluding Cary soccer parents sitting near us who valiantly kept redirecting their kids’ attention to the game for teachable moments. And there were teachable moments: In the 27th, for example, the parent-coaches thrilled to the one-two-one-two combo between Daniel Paladini and Greg Shields down the right flank, although it only resulted in a cross just out of Budnyy’s reach.

On the evidence of the night, the RailHawks are fully in the second stage of their Gregory Richardson tactical evolution. The word is out around the league that the ball should be kept away from the dazzling Guyanese left winger, so we saw the RailHawks effectively exploit the rest of the pitchespecially in the middle where the hard-working Budnyy trolled for a ball he could put in the back of the net. The Ukrainian was caught offside several times, mistimed a few runs and had two goals disallowed. For the game, the RailHawks were caught offsides six times, to none for the Impact.

But it only takes one converted opportunity, and that moment came in the 57th minute when Budnyy took yet another long ball, from John Gilkerson, and was hacked in the area by defender Stefano Pesoli. Up came the red card and off went Pesoli.

After some disagreement between Paladini and Richardson about which up-and-comer would do the honors, Paladini ended up over the spot. Jordan went to his left, Paladini went to his left and the RailHawks had the only goal they needed. 1-0.

Supersub Matthew Delicâte came on in the 72nd, going up top while Budnyy dropped back into the now-departed Joseph Kabwe’s slot. Just as he did in his Puerto Rico debut, Delicâte generated activity and opportunities with more of a facing-the-goal approach. In the 90th, he played a ball past his defender to the byline and crossed to 82nd-minute sub Brian Plotkin to put the nails in the Montreal coffin.

In the last minute of stoppage, Schulte took a shot from a defender that left blood covering the right half of his face. He stalked angrily off the field, shoving a couple of Impacters and looking like an injured MMA fighter, but compared to the injury sustained by Watson, it was a triviality.

Afterward, we asked Rennie about strategy going forward into the playoffs. In a two-leg playoff, Rennie says the strategy changes somewhat. “If you’re away from home you want to make sure you stay in the game, and when you’re home you want to let loose and win the game as best you can. [The strategy] changes slightly but normally when you’re on the road you want to do those things and when you’re at home you want to do those thingsit’s just that the time frame is condensed and it’s against the same team.”

Unlike the UEFA and CONCACAF Champions Leagues, the USL does not employ the away goals tiebreaker in the two-leg playoffs.

As for the ball going through Budnyy tonight, Rennie said, “I think they were so concerned about Richardson they were covering that area a lot, and it opened up opportunities for other people.”

“It was one of our goals to get into the playoffs, and we’ve got to have a lot of confidence,” Rennie said. “We’ve beaten every team [in the league] except Portland.”

Before the RailHawks can add Portland to their list of victims, they’ll have to play through Vancouver and, if successful, either Puerto Rico or Rochester.

The second, return leg of the Vancouver playoff takes place Sunday, Sept. 27, at 5 p.m. at WakeMed.