WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY — Like the collage a grade school class might present to their visiting principal, the Carolina RailHawks commemorated NASL Commissioner David Downs’ second trip to WakeMed Soccer Park by treating him to an overview of the home team’s 2011 season: increased attendance, copious weather woes, an Etienne Barbara goal and another RailHawks victory.

Yet, while 1-0 result was typical for both the RailHawks and their snakebitten opponent, the Atlanta Silverbacks, the path to it was anything but. Three weather delays totaling more than two hours eventually led to the match being called in the 50th minute. Because one-half of the contest was completed by the time the referee and representatives of both clubs agreed to abandon it, the scoreline stood as final and another three points for the high flying ‘Hawks (14-2-2).

Etienne Barbara enjoys love from supporters after scoring goal versus Atlanta

Carolina struck early. After Nick Zimmerman pulled a near-score just left of post 21 seconds into the match, he lifted a pass into the box in the 8th minute that found Barbara’s fertile foot. Barbara fended off two Silverback defenders before firing the ball across the face of outrushing Atlanta goalkeeper Felipe Quintero and into the left netting.

The goal was Barbara’s league-leading 16th this year and Zimmerman’s first assist on the season.

With lightning flickering north of the stadium, play was halted at the 21:46 mark, the third weather-related delay of a RailHawks game this season. After 40 minutes, the match resumed with Atlanta displaying renewed vigor, applying pressure to the RailHawks backline via set pieces.

The Silverbacks best opportunity came in the 29th minute, when an Atlanta corner kick bounded off the chest of 6 foot 3 inch forward Matt Horth stationed far post. However, Railhawks keeper Brad Knighton stayed on his line and snagged an apparent sure-goal, one of his three saves on the evening.

The second lightning delay was called by referee Sorin Stoica with 30:13 on the clock. Play did not resume for over an hour, even though at this point not a drop of precipitation had fallen.

A couple of scoring chances by Barbara in the 34th and Zimmerman in the 39th preceded halftime. However, only five minutes after intermission, more lightning prompted Stoica to call his third weather delay. Outward signs of frustration by players on both teams over another stoppage were quickly drowned by a deluge that began flooding the field before the teams even reached their locker rooms. It was a monsoon that overwhelmed even the recuperative capacity of WakeMed Park’s fine, porous pitch.

Twenty-plus minutes later, with lightning still striking, rain still falling and locusts presumably on the horizon, all sides eventually agreed to halt play and declare the final result. By this time, few fans remained out of the 5,011 officially announced, a dubious attendance figure to the naked eye that club officials explained included roughly 2,500 area children provided tickets purchased by area businesses via the RailHawks’ Kids for Kicks promotion.

“It was an unusual game; I haven’t really been involved with one like this before,” said RailHawks manager Martin Rennie. “It was disappointing [due to] the fact that it was stop and start [and] we couldn’t get a rhythm in the game… Obviously, we knew the way the weather was it was important to be ahead at halftime.

“Every time we came back in [after a weather delay], we just told ourselves that this is a mental battle. You have to stay strong mentally, and every time we went back out we managed to do that.”

The win puts Carolina 15 points clear of second-place Puerto Rico, who play in Montreal tomorrow. A loss or draw by the Impact will officially clinch a NASL playoff berth for the RailHawks.

For hapless Atlanta (2-9-6), Saturday’s result was their sixth one-goal loss this season.

The RailHawks play their next two matches on the road — at Ft. Lauderdale next Saturday and at Puerto Rico on Aug. 10 — before returning to WakeMed Park on Aug. 17 to face NSC Minnesota.

In the meantime, Rennie does not anticipate any more departures from his roster, a relief to fans on tenterhooks about possibly losing productive players like Barbara, Knighton or Pablo Campos midseason.

However, Rennie does hope to add some personnel over the coming weeks.

“I think there’s a good chance we’ll have a couple more players [before our next home match], with our squad being quite small,” Rennie says. “I don’t see the starting lineup changing too much, but I see a couple of guys coming in to help us out a little bit depending on who we can get.”

Sitting down with Downs

Prior to tonight’s abbreviated match, I briefly chatted with NASL Commissioner Downs about the NASL season to date.

Downs remains pleased with what he sees as he travels throughout the league from both an atmospheric and competitive viewpoint.

“If we’ve accomplished anything, we’ve managed to change the focus in the media from [bureaucratic] issues to the play happening on the field,” said Downs.

Downs says that based on formal and informal discussions he has had with representatives of U.S. Soccer, he remains confident about the NASL’s ongoing viability, both next season and beyond. The San Antonio Scorpions FC remains set to join the league next year, having already sold over 1,600 season tickets. And, the league recently announced a new franchise based in Ottawa, ON that hopes to kickoff with the 2013 campaign.

Downs also discussed the upcoming NASL playoff format. Its basic framework was announced prior to the start of this season and remains unchanged. Six teams will qualify for the playoffs, with the four lower-seeded clubs competing in a one-match quarterfinal on October 1st to determine who faces the two top-seeded teams in two-stage, home-and-away semifinal rounds to be played October 8th and 15th. Reseeding will take place prior to the semifinals, meaning the lower-seeded quarterfinal winner will face the regular season champion.

The two-stage league championship final will be played October 22nd and 29th.

Downs said that a couple of unresolved issues regarding the playoffs were settled during a conference call between the league’s Board of Governors last Wednesday. First, the board determined that away goals will not be weighted for the semifinals or finals. If teams are tied on aggregate goals at the end of the two stages, they will play 30 minutes of extra time (no golden goal). If they remain tied after extra time, a penalty shootout will take place to determine the winner.

Also, the board decided that the higher-seeded team in the semifinal or championship round will have to option to choose which of the two stages it will host, instead of the higher-seeded club automatically hosting the second match. According to Downs, a few clubs, including Edmonton and Puerto Rico, wished to retain the option to decide due to potential travel and climate considerations. However, because of planning and other logistical considerations, each potential higher-seeded club (i.e., every playoff team except the lowest-seeded one) must declare which semifinal or final round stage they desire to host before the playoffs begin.