Allan Russell played 90 minutes and took three shots.
  • Andy Mead/ YCJ
  • Allan Russell played 90 minutes and took three shots.

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—It was difficult for coach Martin Rennie to see the bright spots in Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat to the Rochester Rhinos, both because the sky was gray and the ground was soaked and because his side dominated the play, but again fell victim to the WakeMed Park bugaboo.

“There’s positives, but right now we have to learn from this quickly. We have to improve because we can’t be saying the same things after every home game,” Rennie said.

“Ultimately, you’re never going to be a good team unless you’re good at home. You play half of your games here, and we’ve got to find that very, very quickly because we have a lot of home games coming up.”

The RailHawks played in Cary for the first time in a full month, due to an oddly conceived league schedule, and have struggled to find a rhythm in front of Triangle fans despite sitting in second place in the NASL Division with three games in hand.

Tuesday’s loss, which followed a 1-0 win at Rochester the week before and kicks off a four-game home stand, means the RailHawks have now collected just one win, five points and six goals in six home contests. Away games have been a different story, though, with the team earning 19 points in 10 matches, losing only once this season, a 1-0 loss to Montreal earlier this month.

Rennie sets his team up differently on the road, using more of a counterattacking strategy than at WakeMed, where he favors a more open, creative approach. Away teams, however, often come to Cary seeking to defend and secure a draw, or to steal a cheap goal and earn all three points.

Rochester followed that approach perfectly, keeping 10 players behind the ball most of the evening, thudding long balls and sending a lone striker to chase after them.

They generated just six shots on the night, though none found the back of the net. The decisive goal came in the 68th minute as Rhinos midfielder Jamie Franks chipped in a high, seemingly harmless cross into the Carolina six-yard box from 30 yards out. Perhaps lulled to sleep, the RailHawks froze. The ball glanced off of defender Matt Bobo’s noggin, leaving goalkeeper Eric Reed stranded.

“There were a whole lot of things on the play that had to happen together for there to be a bad ending,” Reed said.

“[Franks] didn’t hit the ball hard, but he put it in a very dangerous area. They had runners in, and we had defenders there. Everyone kind of jumped, and I think we ended up just kind of knicking it in ourselves; but hat’s off to him he did serve up a really good ball.”

Rennie was frustrated by conceding such a soft goal and by the play that led up to it. Substitute Tiyi Shipalane, a South African winger who joined the squad in June and seems to average two step-overs per possession, came on minutes earlier. His first three touches were exquisite. He carved through two players, showing them the ball, letting them lunge and leaving them behind to wonder what had happened. He raced to the byline where he teased in a low cross to midfielder Daniel Paladini, whose shot whizzed a few feet north of the crossbar.

“We missed an open shot, and then the game changes when they score, that’s really what it came down to,” Rennie said. “Overall the game we possessed the ball a lot, we had the ball a lot, we played reasonably well, but, ultimately, if you don’t take your chances and you give the other team a goal, this is what’s going to happen.”

Shorts on backward, Tiyi Shipalane does his thing with the ball.
  • Andy Mead/ YCJ
  • Shorts on backward, Tiyi Shipalane does his thing with the ball.

Shipalane’s performance stood out for more reasons that his trademark backward shorts. Again in the 87th minute he beat multiple Rhinos down the right flank and cued up a free header for Ukrainian striker Andriy Budnyy, whose shot went straight into the thankful arms of goalkeeper Neal Kitson.

“That’s happened in a number of games this season where Shipalane has come on, he’s beaten his man, he’s put basically an open chance, an open goal almost, and we’ve not taken it,” Rennie said.

“That’s cost us three games, so that starts to get frustrating after awhile.”

Rennie was pleased with new signing Allan Russell, who led the front line for the full 90 minutes in his debut performance. Russell, signed from Kilmarnock of the Scottish Premier League, was handed the No. 10 and impressed with his strength and fitness.

“The next few games I’ll get fitter and sharper and hopefully you’ll see the best of me,” said Russell, who led the team with three shots.

Russell had not played competitively since the Scottish season ended three months ago. He says he hopes to continue his career in America, but he doesn’t rule out returning to Europe. He says he got more time on the ball Tuesday that he’s used to in Scotland, where the game is much rougher and colder, of course.

“You need to create your own space with good movement, but if you get into space you get generally a lot more time on the ball, which I enjoy,” he said. “I’m excited for the next two months.”

You can listen to the post-game interview with Russell here.

The team faces the division-leading Vancouver Whitecaps at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

One final note: The RailHawks can take some solace from the Puerto Rico Islanders 4-1 thrashing of the MLS leading L.A. Galaxy last night in the CONCACAF Champions league. Carolina has defeated Puerto Rico twice already, both away, this season. The Galaxy, which featured U.S. National Team players Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle for the full 90 minutes, were embarrassed on their own field by the USSF-D2 side, a case in point on the real quality of second division soccer.