The Carolina RailHawks open the 2012 NASL playoffs Saturday evening at WakeMed Soccer Park when they face the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in a single-game quarterfinal showdown. Ardent RailHawks followers know that playoff soccer has produced some the most exciting matches in franchise history. The second leg of the 2010 semifinals against the Montreal Impact supplied Tom Heinemann’s late game-winner and a disallowed equalizer that prompted some Montreal players and staff to literally chase the game officials off the pitch. Then last year, Carolina fell in the semifinals to the Minnesota Stars in an epic, back-and-forth second leg in Cary that ended in a penalty shootout.
Before the 2012 second season begins, however, it’s worth looking back at the year’s worth of memorable soccer already generated by this cast of RailHawks. Most of these highlights (or lowlights, in a few instances) are whole games, and some are individual achievements. But in a season full of ups and downs (followed by more ups and downs), they’re all the product of a team that continues to surprise its supporters.
12. 6-0 win over PSA Elite in U.S. Open Cup—May 22
Normally, a lopsided victory over an outmatched opponent in front of sparse crowd wouldn’t be cause for fond recollection. However, it was the first competitive win for the RailHawks, and sometimes any victory, no matter the opponent, can be a catalyst for further success. That’s what happened with Carolina, which went on to win six of its next eight matches. Moreover, as I contended at the time, the wide gap between the consequences of losing and winning this match—including the chance to host the L.A. Galaxy the following week—made its outcome the most important in club history.
11. Loss to Chivas USA in U.S. Open Cup—June 5
It may appear odd to include a loss in a list of season highlights. But this fourth round match in the U.S. Open Cup not only supplied one of the largest crowds in RailHawks’ history, but it was a valiant, one-goal loss to an MLS opponent sporting first-team strength, with only a week to prepare and a league match in between. It was also one of goalkeeper Ray Burse’s best games this season. Only an unfortunate penalty during full-time stoppage prevented extra time and perhaps a different fate.
10. 4-4 draw with Atlanta Silverbacks—April 14
This match certainly isn’t included for the outcome, a home-opener draw in which the RailHawks led by two goals in the first half before trailing twice in the second stanza. It’s the raucous ending that made news, a scrap in which the fourth official was upended and the referee halted the match before the conclusion of stoppage time.
9. Comeback 3-3 draw vs. Fort Lauderdale—July 7
This outcome peeved RailHawks manager Colin Clarke, who believed his squad squandered early opportunities to seize a win. But the finale made it feel like a victory. Mike Palacio played his best game as a RailHawk, notching a brace that included an 87th minute goal and a 90th minute assist to Ty Shipalane for the equalizer.
Go to the 5:10 mark to skip forward to the RailHawks’ late comeback
8. 5-1 win over Minnesota Stars—June 9
Coming four days after the U.S. Open Cup loss to Chivas USA, this was Carolina’s first league victory over Minnesota since April 2009, back when they were the Thunder. Yes, Minnesota was on the tail end of a brutal seven-game road trip and without the services of several key players and suspended coach Manny Lagos. But it was Carolina’s most impressive offensive output of the season over a pesky nemesis.
7. Nick Zimmerman’s goal vs. FC Edmonton—June 23
The RailHawks leading scorer notched his most amazing goal in the 34th minute of a 2-0 win over FC Edmonton. It’s a striking example of Zimmerman’s ever-present effort.
6. Win over Minnesota Stars after 4-hour weather delay—July 21
That this sort of absurd spectacle could unfold on the whim of a single manager probably makes this match more of a lowlight. But the handful of supporters, media and officials who remained until the final whistle blew around 1 a.m. left with a great story to tell.
5. Ty Shipalane’s game-winning goal vs. FC Edmonton—August 18
The South African super sub saved his most sensational score for the waning minutes of the RailHawks’ comeback win over the visiting Eddies. The victory snapped a three-game winless skid and propelled Carolina into their late-season surge.
4. 3-1 road win at Puerto Rico Islanders—September 1
This was arguably the RailHawks’ most outstanding team effort all year, an accomplishment made more remarkable by not only the traditionally troublesome venue and opposition, but also the fact that Carolina was playing without the suspended Amir Lowery and Gale Agbossoumonde.
3. 2-1 win at San Antonio—September 16
Having lost to the Scorpions three times already—twice at home and another by eight goals—no one gave the RailHawks much of a chance to come away with any points from their final regular season trip to San Antonio. However, a set piece goal from Gale Agbossoumonde and another game-winner from—you guessed it—Ty Shipalane gave Carolina a huge win over the regular season champs and all but clinched a home match to open the playoffs.
2. Ty Shipalane’s game-winning goal vs. Puerto Rico—June 2
This win was momentous for multiple reasons. First, it was Carolina’s first league victory after a nine-game winless streak to open the season. Second, it came against the then league-leading Islanders and their potent offense. Most amazingly, it came after the RailHawks went down a man in the 37th minute once Gale Agbossoumonde was sent off for a reckless tackle of Jonathan Faña. However, motivated by both the desire for an elusive win and Faña’s post-tackle theatrics (running back into play mere minutes after being stretchered to the locker room with a supposed broken leg), the RailHawks’ backs-against-the-wall tenacity was rewarded by Shipalane’s deft chip shot off a long service from goalkeeper Ray “Man’s Game” Burse. It was the rise of the Shipalane star, coming just four days after…
Skip to the 5:10 mark to see Shipalane’s game-winner
1. 2-1 win over the L.A. Galaxy in U.S. Open Cup—May 29
Everything about this game made it the most memorable in club history, starting with a lead-up that captured Triangle sports fans and the record-setting attendance of 7,939. Concerns about a backlash from patrons anticipating a visit from David Beckham were quickly allayed by match itself. Essentially, the RailHawks hung tough with the defending MLS champs until the entry of Ty Shipalane in the 66th minute. Shipalane proceeded to torch the supposedly superior competition, netting a 76th minute equalizer before feeding Brian Shriver in the 88th minute for an improbable cap to a magical night of soccer.