WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARYOn a night when thunder and lightning knocked out an hour of power and heavy rain unequivocally defined the term fair weather fan for several dozen families who sheepishly made their mini-vanning way home, the Charleston Battery and Carolina RailHawks huffed and banged their way through 90 minutes of football.

Carolina entered the game on top of the USL-1 table and had never lost to their Southern Derby rivals, posting a 7-0 record over the past two seasons. Keeper Caleb Patterson Sewell had not conceded a goal in his RailHawks tenure and Martin Rennie was able to field his strongest side with the exception of Josh Gardner who had picked up the flu in Portland. 4,500+ fans braved the game-time tempest and were rewarded with cool weather and eerie, ominous skies. It looked like a promising night for the home side.

Things had obviously changed in Charleston in the off-season however. The cutting of MLS rosters has been a boon for USL-1 as some excellent players have come to ply their trade in the second division. Rumors about the Battery’s new Japanese signing Tsuyoshi Yoshitake proved to be accurate as he made a number of incisive passes and was able to get the better of Carolina’s right back John Gilkerson as Charleston dominated the early stages of the game.

In the third minute, Yoshitake played a diagonal ball into the box that fell for Dan Antoniuk (who had a frustrating year for the RailHawks in 2008). Antoniuk found himself with three yards of space, and stroked the ball into the bottom right hand corner of the goal. It was a portentous sign for the RailHawks as they have never come from behind to win a game.

The goal clearly unsettled the ‘Hawks as they looked uncomfortable on the ball and had difficulty finding a rhythm to their passing. Cunliffe was a liability on the left side of midfield as he was frequently caught in possession and seemed to lack a sense of urgency in the final third. Bundu was left to battle for possession in attack and was constantly swarmed by two or three players. The RailHawks managed to win a corner in the 18th and then the wheels came off as Amir Lowery went in late and high for a header with his elbow raised. The referee showed him a red card. This was the first of 10 cards brandished on the night.

Carolina battled bravely as the Battery bandied the ball to and fro without making productive use of their man advantage. Kupono Low managed a 25-yard effort at goal in the 26th minute which was the first of the night for the RailHawks. Then he and Luke Kreamalmayer picked up yellow cards in the space of six minutes. There was a general sense of randomness when both teams had the ball and the remainder of the half was entropic. The fans were practically begging for the half-time circus to begin.

Carolina came out in the second half resolved to get at least a point. Watson signaling their intent by shaving the post with a right-footed drive from the top of the box. More yellow cards followed as the referee tried to add some spice to the game.

In the 54th minute, Frankie Sanfilippo added all the spice that Charleston would need. Following a poor decision by Patterson to clear to touch instead of collecting the ball in his box, the Battery played the ball to Antoniuk’s feet. Antoniuk laid off for the former RailHawk captain who somehow curled a drive with the inside of his right foot from the top right-hand corner of the penalty box into the top-left corner of Patterson’s net. Sanfilippo ran to the press box side of the stadium and did his best Napoleon Dynamite imitation. ‘The best goal I ever scored,” said Sanfilippo. Not the best dance, mind you, but a stunning goal. Two former RailHawks playing for the Battery, two goals, two-nil and a mountain to climb.

In the 68th minute, Rennie brought on Plotkin for Watson and in the 72nd, Glinton for Bundu. McKenney played a long searching ball into the box, it fell to Plotkin 25 yards out and he ripped a shot with his left. Dusty Huddock spilled the ball to the onrushing Glinton who scored with his first touch of the game. 2-1 and the game finally sprang to life.

Charleston had begun to find their rhythm playing against 11 and nearly put the game out of reach in the 78th minute but the ball pinged against the far post and fell into Patterson’s hands. The ensuing counterattack went through Plotkin who found Glinton streaking into the box where he was foiled by a saving tackle. The crowd screamed for the equalizer.

The screams intensified in the 83rd when Charleston’s Wilson was shown a straight red for a horror challenge on Plotkin. The atmosphere was tense as the players shoved each other. The game was finely balanced. Two minutes later Plotkin was again the victim of a terrible knee high challenge that echoed through WakeMed Park. The referee made the sign of the ball, repeatedly curling his hands as if he were conjuring a mini-pizza. When Carolina won a corner he then decided to go for his book for Plotkin who was involved in the usual hurly-burly in front of the keeper. My head is still bleeding from the vigorous, querulous scratching I gave it.

The crowd raised its collective voice to urge the Orange on to the equalizer. Carolina was able to dominate possession for the remainder, but they were unable to fashion any real chances and the Battery claimed their first victory over the RailHawks, taking the first leg of the Southern Derby Cup 2-1. The RailHawks play their next three games on the road at Miami (May 16), Cleveland (May 22) and Austin (May 24). The Cleveland game will be shown live on Fox Soccer Channel and the others can be seen on usllive.com


Match stats here.