Jonny shows Steely resolve during RailHawks 2-0 win over Monreal

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY — A patriotic air enveloped the season-high crowd of 4,690 that assembled at WakeMed Soccer Park on July Fourth weekend to watch the Carolina RailHawks clash with the Montreal Impact, the rival from the Great White North who, like Great Britain, is a once-great empire that in recent times has fallen precipitously close to irrelevance.

Bookending Saturday evening’s festivities were literal pyrotechnics the home club ponied up — the Khano Smith savings, passed onto the public? — to shoot off after the match and before during the “rockets’ red glare” portion of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In between, there were few of the figurative fireworks typically seen during a RailHawks-Impact fracas. Instead, fans were treated to the sort of workmanlike performance that has become Carolina’s hallmark during their singular season. The end result was a 2-0 victory for the RailHawks (12-1-1), their 10th straight win to go along with a 13-match unbeaten streak.

Montreal played their second game under new head coach Nick De Santis, who took over after the recent “resignation” of Marc Dos Santos. De Santis’ first two matches now mirror Dos Santos’ last two, in that the Impact have failed to net a goal in any of them, pushing their overall scoreless drought to 415 minutes.

Still, Montreal came out aggressively, pushing forward and actively applying pressure to the RailHawks’ back line, which was without John Krause, serving a one-game suspension for accumulating five yellow cards. Replacing Krause at center back was Devon McKenney, Carolina’s human Swiss Army knife. After missing four games due to injury earlier this year, McKenney has started at every defensive position since his return.

“[Devon] can play anywhere along the back line,” said RailHawks manager Martin Rennie. “Last week he played left back; this week he played center back; often he plays right back. He’s just an elite athlete who is an excellent defender. He can fit anywhere we need him, and he always give you a higher level of performance.”

Montreal’s strategy nearly paid dividends in the 4th minute, when a passing error by Brad Rusin gave possession to Impact striker Ali Gerba, whose unimpeded close-range blast was stopped by Carolina goalkeeper Brad Knighton. Gerba’s early attempt would be the first of only three shots on goal for the Impact, all of them saved by Knighton, who registered his 5th clean sheet this season.

At the same time, Montreal’s formation also afforded Carolina’s midfield acres of space whenever they managed to work the ball ahead. With the RailHawks settling in, they nearly notched their first score in the 23rd minute when a shot by NASL Offensive Player of (last) Week Nick Zimmerman and a follow-up by Pablo Campos were both blocked by Montreal keeper Evan Bush.

However, in the 30th minute Chris Nurse chipped the ball from just outside the box through to a waiting Campos, who used his left foot to slide the ball past a diving Bush for Campos’ 6th goal this year.

Before getting injured and subbing off in just the 50th minute, Jonny Steele had one of his most productive games this season. In the 29th minute, a clever, curling cross off the outside of his left boot found a streaking Matt Watson, who failed to convert the putaway. In the 34th, however, Steele played a long ball over the defense to Zimmerman, who not only beat the offside trap but also had the presence of mind to head the bouncing ball over a rushing-out Bush before ducking past the keeper and deflecting his self-pass into the open goal to give Carolina a 2-0 advantage.

“That was absolutely an incredible ball by Jonny Steele,” echoed Zimmerman. “He does that in practice all the time. He puts it in there and all I have to do is basically run into it.”

Searching for the right combination, De Santis used all three of Montreal’s allotted substitutions by the 71st minute. The Impact managed to create many scoring opportunities — they outshot Carolina 10-2 in the second half — but failed to complete them.

“They were putting some pretty good balls into the box,” said Knighton. “They had some really good chances that didn’t go their way. That’s been the tale of their season so far — they’ve done very well defensively but they just can’t seem to put the ball into the back of the net.”

Meanwhile, the RailHawks’ lone promising second half chance came in the 55th minute. Etienne Barbara took possession of a loose ball at midfield and raced past the Impact defense and three offside RailHawks, leaving the striker with a 1v1 faceoff with Bush that the keeper swatted away. Tonight was only the second match this year in which Barbara failed to register a goal or assist. Nevertheless, he remained active throughout and was a lightning rod for wary Impact defenders, ultimately benefitting his teammates.

“[Montreal] was definitely up for the game, and we knew we had to match them,” said Rennie. “That’s why it was encouraging to get those goals in the first half because it’s hot tonight and that made it difficult to get energy in the second half. So, [once] you’ve got a lead to hold onto to, that makes it hard for the opposition to get back into [the game].”

After a June 9th match at NSC Minnesota, the RailHawks begin a home-and-home series with FC Edmonton that ends June 23rd at WakeMed Park. With their NASL regular season now at its midpoint, the RailHawks are 14 points clear of second-place FC Edmonton, who travel to NSC Minnesota Monday evening. While the RailHawks’ front office is already beginning to formulate playoff marketing strategies, Rennie isn’t looking backwards or beyond the next opponent.

“It’s exciting to get our 10th win in a row,” said Rennie. “That’s something I’ve never done in professional soccer, so it’s a big achievement…Ultimately, after every time we play it’s about the next game. However, when you’re on a run like this you do use it as motivation.”

“You dream of seasons like this,” Knighton muses. “There are not many teams around the world at the professional level that are going to win ten games straight…Every time we step on the field we believe we can take three points and be the better team, and that’s been the way it’s been so far this season. It’s been a great journey.”

UPDATE: Monday morning, RailHawks captain Brad Rusin announced via Twitter that he was leaving the RailHawks after signing a three-year contract with HB Køge, a club in the Danish Superliga. effectively immediately. Rusin has truly blossomed as both captain and a force along Carolina’s back line; his presence will be massively missed. Still, we wish Brad nothing but the best in his career. With the club playing well, Brad’s move also gives pause to what other RailHawks, such as Etienne Barbara or Brad Knighton, may have midseason opportunities come knocking.

UPDATE Tuesday, 7/5/11, 10:20am: Head coach Martin Rennie tells Triangle Offense that Kupono Low will be the RailHawks’ new team captain with the departure of Brad Rusin. Low is the last of the “original” RailHawks from the team’s debut 2007 season still on the roster.