Matt Watson battles for loose ball during RailHawks 3-1 victory over FC Tampa Bay
  • Carolina RailHawks
  • Matt Watson battles for loose ball during RailHawks 3-1 victory over FC Tampa Bay

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY — Old met new Saturday evening when the Carolina RailHawks hosted FC Tampa Bay, Carolina’s first home match in three weeks. More precisely, the game and scene around WakeMed Soccer Park served as evidence of how far the RailHawks have come in less than a year.

Seen sitting in the club owner’s box was the familiar visage of Selby Wellman, presumably in town to visit his son Brian over Father’s Day weekend and attending a RailHawks match for the first time since leaving the team he once owned. More dark clouds carrying wind and rain met the teams as they exited the tunnel for player introductions, sending patrons scattering for shelter in a scene reminiscent of the two weather-marred matches that opened this season. Then, once play began, Carolina fell behind a goal early, once the death-knell for any hope of a RailHawks victory.

However, not only was the game not delayed on account of weather, but the rain stopped as quickly as it began shortly after kickoff. And, by the time halftime arrived, sunlight had greeted the 4,041 fans in attendance and the RailHawks had equalized the score on their way to 3-1 victory over FC Tampa Bay.

It was the eighth straight victory for Carolina, who also extended their unbeaten streak to 11 matches. League-leading scorer Etienne Barbara netted his 13th goal of the season and assisted two more scores by Matt Watson and Allan Russell.

The opening minutes of the match were notable for repeated missed scoring opportunities for Carolina, including a pointblank chance for Pablo Campos in the 11th minute that was saved by diving FC Tampa goalkeeper Jeff Attinella.

In the 18th minute, Carolina keeper Brad Knighton got his fingertips on a shot by Tampa’s Tsuyoshi Yoshitake. However, the ball deflected over to forward Warren Ukah, who casually converted the put-back to give Tampa a 1-0 lead.

The RailHawks continued to knock on the door throughout the first half without managing to step through. In the 25th minute, Barbara delivered a cross that met a meek header by Campos. A 34th minute shot from Jonny Steele, who struggled with possession and pace throughout the opening stanza, sailed just over the crossover.

Finally, in the 36th minute, Matt Watson received a give-and-go back from Barbara beyond the penalty area, took a touch, and netted a blast from 25 yards reminiscent of Jozy Altidore’s long-range strike for the U.S. national team against Guadalupe last Tuesday.

“Etienne showed me to feet, I played it in to him, I got it back and took a touch and hit it,” says Watson. “The ball bent away from the goalkeeper — I think he was expecting it to go across him but instead it went near-post and past him.”

As the teams returned from halftime, Barbara was seen vociferously exhorting his teammates, including a testy tête-á-tête with Steele. The RailHawks took the field for the second half displaying more resolve, although both teams exchanged chances and near misses for nearly 25 minutes.

Then, in the 69th minute, Barbara took matters into his own, well, feet. Gathering possession with space near the top of the penalty box, he penetrated past the defense and got off a shot that hit the chest of Tampa defender Andres Arango. The ball rebounded back to the Maltese striker, who followed with a second attempt that this time went across Attinella and into the left side of the net. Barbara and his teammates coordinated a choreographed celebration that the striker says was patterned after a breathing technique the team learned — and chuckled over — during training the previous week.

“I got the ball on the line, and when I cut in there was space in front of me,” recalls Barbara. “I tried to finish on the far post which was open. It hit the player’s hand and the ball stayed down, so I picked it up again and shot it again on the far post.”

With Tampa pushing forward in search of an equalizer, the RailHawks found their third goal when an onside Barbara gathered a long ball from Knighton and found himself one-on-one with Attinella. Barbara dribbled right to draw the keeper and then laid the ball off to an unmarked Allan Russell, who buried his third stoppage time goal this season.

RailHawks manager Martin Rennie credited halftime adjustments and the nature of his team for tonight’s victory.

“[Tampa’s] movement in midfield was causing us some problems,” said RailHawks manager Martin Rennie. “So [at halftime] we adjusted how we defended that, and that allowed us to win the ball more in better positions and attack them more dangerously.

“And, there’s also the character of our players — these guys want to win every time they step on the field and they’re willing to put in whatever work they need to get the result, and that showed again tonight.”

“Sometimes we start off sluggish before we get into the game,” said Barbara. “Because we are in first place and have a good advantage in points, I know it’s normal to sometimes be overconfident. But, we need to eliminate that as soon as possible after the game starts.”

Perhaps Barbara’s mind was also partly elsewhere, since prior to taking any questions about tonight’s match, Barbara began his postgame press conference with an unsolicited, two-minute exegesis about his denied goal during last weekend’s victory at FC Edmonton. An apparent score by Barbara was waved off by the referee due to interference supposedly caused by an errant whistle blown by a spectator.

It was clear Barbara had been aching to expound on the topic all week.

“You never deny a goal because somebody blows a whistle up on a hill,” Barbara began. “It’s the stupidest decision I’ve ever heard or seen in the history of soccer. The referee told me it affected the game. But, the whistle blew when I shot the ball. Actually, when I shot the ball I looked at the linesman to see if the flag was up. I wasn’t offside and we celebrated the goal. Then, the fourth official denied it.

“I should have 15 goals now.” (Actually, Barbara is on 13 goals, not 14. But his 14th should be coming soon.)

With the win over FC Tampa, the RailHawks (10-1-1) extend their lead atop the NASL table to 11 points over second-place FC Edmonton. Carolina travels to Atlanta next week before returning to WakeMed Soccer Park on July 3 for a holiday weekend match against the Montreal Impact.

In the meantime, the RailHawks can indeed contemplate what a difference a year makes. Tonight’s attendance of 4,041 is their largest regular-season audience since midway through the team’s 2008 campaign. The club’s front office continues to make tangible strides in marketing a team that was without an owner and whose brand was being peddled on eBay five months ago. A pregame party tent in the parking area sold out its 100 available seats. Courtesy of a corporate sponsor, the first 500 kids entering tonight’s match were given a free replica jersey T-shirt. And, the July 3 match against Montreal will be followed by a fireworks show, a fact already being advertised to fans leaving tonight’s game.

It’s a difference Watson feels inside the RailHawks’ locker room, as well.

“There are so many leaders in the locker room, which I think is different than last year. We had a very good technical team, but maybe we didn’t have leaders that were going to drag us through when things weren’t good. This year it’s been very different.”

Other news: Forward Kithson Bain watched tonight’s match from a wheelchair inside the press box. Martin Rennie, who ballyhooed Bain’s arrival throughout the preseason, confirms that Bain recently suffered a “serious knee injury” that requires surgery and will end his season. It’s an injury that will quite likely end Bain’s RailHawks career without him ever setting a foot on the field for the club.

Update 10:40 a.m.: Video highlights are here, courtesy of the Carolina RailHawks.