WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—After Brian Shriver scored two goals for the Carolina RailHawks in their last game of 2013, giving him a personal- and league-best 15 for the year, the NASL Golden Boot winner alluded to his future plans.
“I love it here, and hopefully things work out,” the out-of-contract Shriver said at the time. “But in the end it is a business, so we’ll see what happens.”
Quite understandably, what happened was that Shriver took the money and ran to Tampa Bay, signing a lucrative contract with the newly flush Rowdies. However, 2014 hasn’t proven as fruitful for Shriver thus far. He has only one goal this season and missed the Rowdies’ last three regular season matches due to a right ankle sprain.
Saturday evening, Shriver made his first trip back at WakeMed Soccer Park since that 2013 finale last November. For pregame tailgating, the fatted calf took patty form. And while some former teammates were happy to renew acquaintances, most of Shriver’s ex-RailHawks brothers were undoubtedly aching to get one over on the prodigal goalscorer.
Indeed, not Shriver’s second-half appearance, nor Tampa Bay’s possession advantage, nor the Rowdies’ 21 shots were enough to upend the Carolina RailHawks home ground dominance. Carolina defeated the Rowdies 2-0 before 7,856 fans, a new RailHawks regular season attendance record. The win extends the RailHawks’ home unbeaten streak to 21 games.
The pace of the match was established early by RailHawks’ midfielder Cesar Elizondo. Now firmly ensconced as Carolina’s starting left winger, Elizondo slipped past two Rowdies defenders in the 8th minute and drove off the left touchline into the box. Maneuvering past a third defender, Elizondo cut loose a short-range angled shot that bounded across the face of Tampa Bay goalkeeper Cody Mizell before ricocheting off the base of the right post and back into Mizell’s welcoming mitts.
Ten minutes later, the RailHawks opening their scoring account. Facing yet another high defensive line designed to slow the pace of the speedy Elizondo and Ty Shipalane, Jun Marques Davidson delivered a pinpoint long ball over the top of the encroaching Rowdies, finding target man Mike Grella both onside and rumbling toward the goal. Grella awkwardly chested down the delivery before poking a shot past an onrushing Mizell for the 1-0 Carolina lead.
“I pulled away from the defenders and Jun, who is one of the most fantastic players I’ve played with, saw it right away,” Grella said. “He put it right in the spot where it needed to be. It was a funny mix-up between the defender and I, and the ball got loose. The keeper was off his line and I reacted quickly, and it was just a toe poke finish from there.”
Both teams squandered chances beginning in the 24th minute. Elizondo got loose in the box again, this time on the right side, but his shot across Mizell rolled wide left of goal. A minute later, Tampa Bay’s Evans Frimpong found himself in the box with a loose ball at his feet, but his own toe poke bounced off the left post.
In the 35th minute, Rowdies forward Casey Townsend split the RailHawks’ defenders for a 1v1 with RailHawks goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald. However, Fitzgerald stoned Townsend’s shot.
In the 45th minute, the RailHawks felt hard done by a no-call from center referee Alan Kelly off an apparent handball in the box by Tampa Bay defender Kyle Clinton. In the 54th minute, however, Carolina appeared poised to compensate for that slight when defender Willie Hunt tripped up Grella in the box. However, Grella’s especially poor PK attempt was easily smothered by Mizell.
Grella, who converted a PK goal during the RailHawks’ win two weeks ago against Atlanta, admits he made a mess of this attempt.
“I guess I’m a little rusty, and I thought he may have watched video of my last penalty,” Grella explained. “So I figured I’d pick a different side, the side I usually don’t go to. So I just picked my corner, went there, and it wasn’t a good [PK] … I don’t think it had anything to do with confidence, I think it was just a poor penalty.”
Carolina displayed exquisite passing and link up play all evening, and that finally produced a second goal in the 72nd minute. Driving laterally off the left wing, Elizondo slipped a through ball between the Rowdies’ back line to a streaking Shipalane in the box. Shipalane gathered the gimme and deposited his shot past Mizell.
Fitzgerald finished with four saves, but it was his calm command of a back line sans injured center back Toni Stahl that earned the RailHawks’ keeper his third consecutive clean sheet and his fourth for the NASL spring season.
“We’d done some homework on what to expect from [the Rowdies],” Fitzgerald said. “Our back line just did a great job of limiting their chances, cutting out passes, and they made it real easy for me. I only had one save I had to make, and as a goalkeeper you’re expected to make one big save in a game at a crucial moment. As long as you do that, you’ve done your job.”
Making only his second pro appearance, Mizell is the third Rowdies goalkeeper to see time on the pitch this season following Ryan Thompson and the injured Matt Pickens. And doesn’t include presumptive starter Diego Restrepo, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon days into preseason training camp.
Rowdies manager Ricky Hill has also dealt with a porous, constantly reshuffling back line. Saturday’s latest alteration was moving Clinton to center back.
“Kyle trains consciousnessly every day of the week,” Hill said. “He comes in and is a proper professional. We’ve had much difficulty with our central defense. We’ve tried maybe five or six different combinations, and it was Kyle’s opportunity to get his chance.”
For Tampa Bay (2-3-3, 9 pts.), the loss exacerbates a disappointing spring season for a club that spent much money on players during the offseason and entered 2014 with high hopes.
After Saturday’s loss, Hill spoke in some detail about his team’s woes.
“It’s most definitely been a disappointment for all of us,” Hill said, remarking on his team’s play in the spring season. “We have 10 new players who are adjusting. But predominately, it’s been self-inflicted so we only have ourselves to blame. In the three ties we’ve had, we were ahead in all three games and not able to see the games through. At the same time, we’ve only scored multiple goals on one occasion out of nine games, including the [U.S. Open] Cup game. So, therein lies another problem. We’re not taking enough pressure off our defense by being clinical in the [attacking] half to get one, two or three goals ahead.
“We have high expectations; I have high expectations.”
Heading into their final game of the spring season, a road match at FC Edmonton, the RailHawks (4-2-2, 14 pts.) realize that the end of the 9-game spring campaign is only one-third of the overall regular season.
“It’s 27 games. Edmonton is number nine,” Clarke said. “We’ve got 18 after that and we have to make sure that when the 27 games are up that we are in one of the top four positions. From there we can win the championship.”
While the NASL regular season will take a break for the FIFA World Cup after next weekend, the RailHawks return to the pitch in two weeks when they host Chivas USA in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
But in both result and style of play, the RailHawks continue to accomplish that most important of sporting virtues: giving their fans full faith and credit for their ticket price. Whether you’re a soccer “purist” or a casual fan craving entertainment, the objective fact is that the RailHawks are playing an attractive, stimulating brand of soccer on their home turf.
“It was a fun night, and probably a great night to watch a very good game of soccer between two teams who wanted to play and pass and move and entertain,” Clarke said. “It was fun to watch. I think the crowd got into it—thank you much for coming, and I hope they come back.”