WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Throughout the 2014 regular season (heck, even last year, too), the Carolina RailHawks have displayed an uncanny ability to play counter to their given situation.
Anytime the RailHawks appear on the verge of falling out of a possible berth in the NASL’s four-team postseason tournament, the team will reel off two or three unexpected victories to again grab the reins of their destiny. Then, just as promptly, Carolina will squander their reacquired fortunes, placing themselves back on the precipice of heartbreak.
The fickle foot of fate once again dealt a blow to the RailHawks Saturday night with their 1-1 draw with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. A Carolina win on home ground at WakeMed Soccer Park would have catapulted it back into fourth place in the overall NASL standings with only two games left in the regular season.
Instead, Saturday’s tie keeps the RailHawks two points behind the Strikers and tied with FC Edmonton for the fifth position. Moreover, Carolina will likely lose any tiebreaker since it trails both Fort Lauderdale and FC Edmonton substantially in goal differential.
It’s an outcome RailHawks manager Colin Clarke and his team were acutely aware of approaching Saturday’s match with Fort Lauderdale, which already defeated Carolina 1-0 two weeks ago in South Florida.
“Overall, it was disappointing,” Clarke said about this weekend’s draw. “Before this night started, we had it in our control to succeed in what our goal was at the start of the season, which is get into the playoffs and have a chance to win a championship. It’s not over, but it’s now out of our control.”
A scoreless, largely uneventful first half unfolded between two teams understanding the consequences of the match but clearly not wanting to be the first to make a costly error. The Strikers came out with a defensive strategy to pressure the RailHawks high and closely mark and muscle Carolina’s midfielders. When combined with their tall, stout back line that managed to mark the RailHawks’ wingers while also closing off passing lanes through the middle, it often appeared that the Strikers were playing with an extra field player.
Unlike the nine-goal second half that followed a scoreless first half between the RailHawks and New York Cosmos four weeks ago, the action this Saturday didn’t begin to open up until the 64th minute. Second-half substitute Nacho Novo found space inside the penalty area, but his was blocked by Strikers’ midfielder Shawn Chin. Two minutes later, Ty Shipalane replicated the feat after Novo laid a ball off to Shipalane, who found himself with an open angled shot coming off the left wing that he pushed wide right of goal.
Just one minute later, the Strikers made the RailHawks pay for their missed chances. Midfielder Mark Anderson, after gathering a pass from Martin Nuñez, created space atop the 18-yard box and uncorked a low left-footed bounder that slipped beneath diving goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald into the side netting for a 1-0 Fort Lauderdale lead.
The moment was similar to the match two weeks earlier, when Anderson’s lone goal in the 59th minute proved the Strikers’ game-winner over the RailHawks.
Thanks to stable defending and some tremendous goalkeeping from the Strikers’ Kamil Contofalsky, it appeared recent history might repeat itself. A Shipalane cross off the right wing in the 78th minute found Nazi Albadawi in the goalmouth, but his point blank header was saved by Contofalsky.
But Carolina found their equalizer in the 82nd minute. Shipalane laid the ball over Novo atop the 6-yard box with his back to goal. Sensing the defender and goalkeeper closing in, Novo chose to quickly back-heel the ball with his right boot into the lower corner of the goal. It’s the first goal for Novo since joining the RailHawks last month.
“As soon as I got the ball, rather than turn around, I was just thinking [take a touch] into the corner,” Novo said. “It was the fastest [shot] I could do. And after missing the first [shot], I didn’t even want to try to turn.”
One of the only things missing from the match by this point was controversy, but that came in spades in the 85th minute. With Carolina pushing for the win, Shipalane took a turn and dribbled into the penalty box, where he poked the ball ahead and split two defenders in order to create a shot. Instead, Shipalane went down after being tripped by a sliding James Marcelin. However, referee Marcos DeOliveira declined to whistle a penalty, to the boisterous disapproval of Clarke, the RailHawks’ players and the 4,179 fans in attendance.
After the match, Clarke did not mince words in expressing his displeasure at the referee’s non-call.
“[I saw] a penalty, and so did everybody else apart from the one person who had the whistle in his hand,” Clarke said. “No two ways about it, and everybody I’ve talked to since has confirmed that on replays. Everybody said to me that it was a penalty.”
“For me it was a penalty, because I was right in front of it,” Novo added. “But that’s football. You can’t do anything. The referees have a difficult job, as well.”
In truth, DeOliveira’s overall performance throughout the match was largely evenhanded. There was some inconsistency between DeOliveira’s calls at the start of the match as compared to its latter stages. However, Carolina was only whistled for five more fouls than Fort Lauderdale, and the referee gave only three bookings, two against the Strikers. Still, the non-penalty was a key call at the pivotal part of the match.
An additional subplot is the fact that DeOliveira resides in Hillsboro Beach, Fla., located 14 miles north of Fort Lauderdale, according to the public portion of his Facebook profile. Moreover, his Facebook profile also lists six Florida and Miami-area sports teams that DeOliveira has “liked,” including the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Indeed, DeOliveira’s connection to the Fort Lauderdale area was a topic of furtive conversation among some RailHawks officials after the match.
Even without any direct evidence of bias on the referee’s part, it’s fair to question the propriety of tapping a referee who lives in a particular city to officiate a match involving a club from that city and a team from elsewhere, especially when the same official has expressed some level of affinity for that particular hometown club on social media.
*UPDATE (10/20/14): DeOliveria apparently updated his Facebook profile page sometime since Saturday night so that the only sports team now shown has being “liked” is FIU Golden Panthers football. However, click below to see a screen capture of his profile page as it appeared last Saturday.
For his part, Strikers manager Günter Kronsteiner said the match was well-played by both teams and that each deserved to walk away with a point.
“I think for an away team we played good because it’s not easy to play here,” Kronsteiner said, “The RailHawks are a very good team, They’re very organized and you won’t get a lot of chances against them.”
Kronsteiner also mentioned, without prompting, that his team was additionally hampered by not having leading goalscorer Fafà Picault in the starting lineup. Picault, who eventually entered the match in the 62nd minute, has 12 goals on the year, second-most in the NASL. He appeared in all three of the Strikers’ matches over a seven-day period beginning Oct. 4 through Oct. 11. He scored two goals in the Strikers’ 3-2 win over Tampa Bay on Oct. 8, and he came off the bench to score another goal against Atlanta on Oct. 11.
So, it was safe to assume that Kronsteiner was measuring Picault’s minutes during the stretch run of the season, or that his star striker needed some rest.
However, Kronsteiner dispelled those assumptions in very frank fashion.
“I think he’s not focused, if I’m being honest,” Kronsteiner said. “When I see somebody in practice not doing 100 percent what I expect of him, why should I play him from the beginning? It was a warning signal for him because, for example, he would not get picked up for somewhere else. He’s wanted to get to a different league. He’s ‘bring me [to] Germany, bring me to different teams.’ So let’s see what comes out with this, but when somebody is focused and wants to play for our team he deserves to be on the pitch instead of [Picault].
“The last three games everybody has come to him now,” Kronsteiner continued. “He comes to me every day and talks to me, ‘Coach, I got a call from this team, I got a call from this team.’ … You can clearly see he’s not on our field anymore, He’s already somewhere completely different.”
Kronsteiner said the list of supposedly interested suitors includes Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs and other teams outside the U.S. While Kronsteiner says he has not heard personally from any of these clubs, “it seems he and his father did already know something.”
Meanwhile, the path to the playoffs for the RailHawks is now beyond their total control. Carolina must win next Saturday at the Atlanta Silverbacks and the await the outcome of the match between the Strikers and FC Edmonton. The RailHawks then host league-leading Minnesota United FC for their final regular season match on Nov. 1. Carolina must also win that game and hope that either Fort Lauderdale and/or FC Edmonton stumble in their final game.
It’s a tall order. But just when you think you’re figured out this RailHawks’ season, another surprise appears around the bend.
“Who knows? There might be just one more twist in this saga that’s been this fall season,” Clarke said. “Hopefully there is and it’ll twist our way.”