Brian Shriver scrambles in front of goal during the Carolina RailHawks 1-0 win over FC Edmonton Saturday night at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC
  • Photo by Joannah Irvin
  • Brian Shriver scrambles in front of goal during the Carolina RailHawks’ 1-0 win over FC Edmonton Saturday night at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/CARY—Saturday night marked the long-awaited return of an important member of the North American Soccer League (NASL) family, a club with a proud pedigree whose championship form was curtailed by an ignominious, disappointing demise. The occasion was accompanied by media coverage, pregame festivities, the return of several of the team’s important players and even atmospheric pyrotechnics.

I’m referring, of course, to the Carolina RailHawks, which opened the NASL Fall Season with a 1-0 home victory over FC Edmonton. There were a few differences between the RailHawks’ return and the reboot of the New York Cosmos occurring on the same night in Hempstead, N.Y. While the Cosmos rung the bell to close the New York Stock Exchange Friday afternoon, the RailHawks rung the dinner bell for their annual Taste of the Triangle promotion. The Cosmos trotted out the likes of Pelé and Carlos Alberto, but Carolina ushered back immediately impactful players like Ty Shipalane and Julius James, both coming off injuries that cut short their Spring seasons, as well as MLS loanee Enzo Martinez. The Cosmos’ revival was covered by a brigade of Gotham’s press corp; the RailHawks’ press box was populated by media triumvirate. And while the Empire State Building was awash in Cosmos green, WakeMed Soccer Park was just awash from a summer squall that flooded its pitch, illuminated the Carolina sky and delayed the start of the match for two hours.

However, the deluge once again gave WakeMed Park’s pristine pitch another chance to shine. Roughly a half-hour after being largely underwater, the field was drained, squeegeed, and fit for play. But, even once the game began, play was halted again after merely six minutes when an electrical surge dimmed half of the stadium’s lights. Once that 20-minute stoppage passed, the restored floodlights illuminated a one-sided RailHawks’ performance that alternated between exciting and workmanlike.

The match’s early stages showcased an energized Enzo Martinez, the Real Salt Lake midfielder returning to Carolina on loan after a brief Spring stint. Most of Martinez’s early development at Real Salt Lake has been as a holding midfielder. However, Saturday saw RailHawks’ manager Colin Clarke supply Martinez the license to push forward in attack, something that agreed with the former UNC Tar Heel standout.

“I talked with Colin, and he told me he believed I would help us more in attack,” Martinez said. “I started my career playing forward, went to UNC playing the midfield, and I’ve played every position at Salt Lake. So, I’m just happy to be able to play, and that’s the number one thing for me right now.”

After forward Brian Ackley skied a sitter fed to him by Martinez in the 29th minute, Martinez’s skill reaped dividends in the 31st. Martinez threaded a cross off the right wing through to Ackley atop the box. Ackley one-touched the ball ahead to an onside Brian Shriver, who settled it before depositing a left-footer past Edmonton keeper Lance Parker.

“Enzo hit Ackley, the second forward,” Shriver recalled, “and once the ball got by me, I just kind of spun off and Ackley laid it off right into my path. I didn’t get great contact, but I wasn’t too far out so it got over the keeper, which was all I needed to do.”

The RailHawks nearly doubled their lead in the 42nd minute when a Paul Hamilton header off a Carolina corner appeared destined for net before Parker made a diving save.

Carolina dominated every aspect of the match in the first half, outshooting Edmonton 11-2 and keeping a whopping 66 percent of possession. The second half, however, settled into more a back-and-forth affair. The RailHawks left multiple chances wanting. A would-be curler by Shriver in 62nd minute sailed just right of goal. A short-range angled blast by second-half sub Shipalane in the 71st minute flew wide left by inches.

Meanwhile, FC Edmonton’s principal scoring threat occurred in the 81st minute. Off an Eddies’ free kick, the ball bounded to forward Michael Cox, whose chip shot from point-blank range was deflected away by a diving Akira Fitzgerald, who earned his second clean sheet in league play this year.

For their part, FC Edmonton was hampered by a couple of setbacks. First was the absence of midfielder Daryl Fordyce, who is tied with Cox as the team’s co-leader in goals. Also, as the result of a series of travel snafus, the team didn’t arrive in North Carolina until 3 a.m. Saturday morning.

Returning from the month-long midseason break, the RailHawks demonstrated a couple of things to the 4,488 fans who braved the elements. First, the team has improved the elements of the game in which it was already potent, chiefly midfield attack and creating chances. Missing from Saturday’s lineup was the Spring starting tandem of former team captain Floyd Franks, who was traded to Minnesota United last week, and midfielder Nick Millington, who was out with a hamstring injury. Together with Martinez, taking their place was Breiner Ortiz, who made productive work from his first minutes this year, and Bryan Arguez, who came on as a second-half substitute and flashed a preview of his talented promise.

However, the second observation was the scant evidence of improvement in the forward positions, one of the biggest deficits for Carolina during the Spring Season. Clarke opted to start Ackley in lieu of struggling regular Zack Schilawski. While Ackley did assist on Shriver’s goal and inject some energy up top, the remainder of his performance was nonproductive.

“We talked about from the first season to this season, being more ruthless and taking our chances,” Clarke said. “We didn’t do that well.

“But, we moved the ball very well in the first half. [FC Edmonton] were chasing shadows at times, so it was tough for them. We let them back in the second half through not taking our chances and finishing the game off.”

Another change was Clarke’s decision to drop Austin da Luz, the league’s assist leader, deeper at midfielder, a choice that allowed da Luz to hold more possession. Da Luz was also team captain for the game.

“He’s a voice, a leader,” Clarke said. “It’ll help him. It’ll make him realize a little bit what it’s all about being a captain and the responsibilities of being a captain. You could watch him out there tonight—he’d have probably gotten a yellow card if he hadn’t been captain. But he showed some maturity and leadership qualities, which was great to see.”

The RailHawks next travel to Atlanta to take on the Silverbacks, which eked past Carolina on the final day of the season to win the Spring championship. The Silverbacks have arranged a Spring Season championship trophy presentation prior to next Saturday’s match, something that’s already on the RailHawks’ minds.

“We knew we had [the FC Edmonton] game first,” said Shriver, “but everyone’s kind of looking at this next weekend with a chance to go to Atlanta to play them and hopefully take three points while they’re doing their trophy presentation and all that stuff.”

For Clarke, however, it’s just about winning three points, trying to get the first road victory this year and stepping off on the right boot for the Fall Season.

“I think some people have asked questions about us and whether we’d have a hangover from the Spring Season,” Clarke countered. “I think we showed tonight that we don’t. We’re looking to win this second season and go to the championship.”