Though the visiting Carolina Dynamo of the PDL made things difficult and tense at times, the NASL Carolina RailHawks came away with a 3-1 victory Tuesday night, securing a Wednesday, May 29 home date with the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Third Round of the U.S. Open Cup.
Last year, the Carolina RailHawks entered play in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup riding a nine-game winless skid to open the NASL season. Moreover, the RailHawks knew that a loss to PSA Elite, their second round Open Cup opponent, meant squandering the lucrative opportunity to host the defending MLS champion L.A. Galaxy the next week. Carolina’s 6-0 onslaught over PSA Elite got the RailHawks off the schneid and set the stage for an improbable win over the Galaxy.
Tuesday night at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, a different RailHawks squad took the field, one atop the NASL standings and winners of all three of its home league matches. Yet, the Open Cup mission remained the same: defeat your lower division opponent and next week you get the chance to again host the reigning MLS Cup champion Galaxy. While the execution this year wasn’t nearly as overwhelming, the outcome was the same.
Three days after suffering their first league loss of the season in Atlanta, the somewhat leg-weary RailHawks sported a lineup of mostly regulars, particularly in the attacking third. However, a few new faces graced the starting 11, including goalkeeper Tim Murray and Scottish center back Kevin Rutkiewicz. Brian Ackley got the start over Zack Schilawski (more on that a bit later). Costa Rican signee César Elizondo made his RailHawks debut late in the match, and defender Eddie Ababio played 27 minutes off the bench.
From the outset it was obvious which was the stronger side as the RailHawks dominated possession for the vast majority of the opening stanza against a deep-lying Dynamo defense. But although the RailHawks outshot the Dynamo 9-3 in the first half, the home side proved frustratingly unable to finish their chances.
That compact defensive approach was part of the strategy for the Dynamo, a team largely comprised of offseason college players who only trained a handful of times prior to tonight’s match and just completed college exams. Nevertheless, it was also a team that defeated Chattanooga FC in an U.S. Open Cup shootout thriller a week ago.
“We wanted to come here and compete,” said Dynamo manager Marc Nicholls. “We wanted to make it a tough game. And we knew that we wouldn’t have the legs to necessarily press them as much as we like because we knew we couldn’t sustain that.”
The RailHawks got on the board in the 26th minute when Ty Shipalane jumped onto a loose ball roughly 25 yards out and uncorked a rocket that ricocheted off a Dynamo defender on its course and into the netting.
“Floyd [Franks] was right in front of me, and I just jumped in front of Floyd just to be greedy a little bit,” an impish Shipalane said. “I saw the defender coming, then I saw that the goalkeeper was out of position. Lucky enough there was deflection, so credit to me for shooting it.”
Indeed, Shipalane’s self-congratulation was merited, as the RailHawks continued the oddest of team imperfections: a propensity to overpass and undershoot. One particular sequence is emblematic of the evening. In the 56th minute, Brian Shriver raced past the defense and directly toward the keeper. Yet, he forewent an open shot to lay the ball over to an open Austin da Luz. Da Luz then chose to forgo his own open shot and instead lay the ball off to Ackley atop the six-yard box. Ackley then deposited his sitter over the goal and into the pine tree forest behind the grandstands.
“I was disappointed in how we didn’t score more goals,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “We looked like we were trying to be Arsenal out there and walk it into the net. We’ve got to be a bit more ruthless and want to score goals and want to stick it in the back of the net.”
That lack of finishing bit the RailHawks in the 39th minute. N.C. State rising senior Alex Martinez – brother of RSL loanee Enzo Martinez – received the ball along the end line off a throw-in. Erroneously assuming the ball had crossed the line, defender Kupono Low backed off Martinez, permitting the midfielder to drive toward goal and unleash a short-range shot that ricocheted off a RailHawk and into the net for an own goal equalizer.
After more knocking at the door went unanswered , the RailHawks finally went ahead to stay in the 53rd minute. A long-range free kick from da Luz deflected off the head of Austen King and past goalkeeper Peyton Ford for a 2-1 lead.
The RailHawks failed to put the Dynamo totally away, thanks to missed chances by da Luz and particularly Ackley, who was gifted four shots in 74 minutes but only managed to put one on frame. A minute after Zack Schilawski came on for Ackley, the move paid off. Shipalane poked a through ball in the box ahead to Schilawski, who calmly one-touched it past Ford for the 3-1 advantage.
Nevertheless, the Dynamo didn’t go down without flashing the fight they exhibited in coming back from a 3-1 second half deficit against Chattanooga FC last week. In the 81st minute, Arthur Rex got behind the RailHawks defenders and poked a ball past Murray but right of goal. And in the 89th, Hakan Ilhan, the hat trick hero of last week’s win, found space for a short-range shot that bounded off the left woodwork.
“We knew it was going to be a difficult night,” Clarke said. “[The Dynamo] came in, they worked hard, they defended very well. We didn’t get a goal as early as we liked, and then you start to wonder and worry.”
The match was the first-ever meeting between the RailHawks and Dynamo, a member of the USL PDL. And while the final score does not betray any RailHawks dominance, several game statistics do. For the match, the RailHawks outshot the Dynamo 19-6 (9-1 on-target) and earned six corner kicks to only one for the visitors that didn’t come until the 89th minute.
“The best team won,” Nicholls said. “I was very impressed with them. I thought they were terrific. I was pleased with our team, I thought we hung in there for the longest time.”
With no league game this weekend, the RailHawks’ full attention now turns to their rematch with the Galaxy next Wednesday. In preparation for the possibility, Clarke traveled to New York last weekend to scout the Galaxy during their MLS match against the Red Bulls.
Last week, Galaxy manager Bruce Arena groused about his team being “shuffled off” to North Carolina for their third round Open Cup match, despite the fact that the Galaxy were already traveling east for a weekend match against the New England Revolution. Though Arena’s complaint about cross-country travel for midweek cup matches sandwiched between weekend MLS matches may merit examination, it was the tenor of Arena’s remarks, in concert with his typical practice of fielding reservists for Open Cup play, that has rubbed some the wrong way.
It was also the tenor that Clarke indirectly referenced after Tuesday’s match.
“The pressure’s on [the Galaxy],” Clarke declared. “They got beat last year, and they were out of the Open Cup. I’m not sure what they’re going to do and how they’re going to view it – if they really value the tournament and want to win it. But it doesn’t matter who’s on the field. We know they’re going to be good, and we’ve got to be good.”
Last year, the Galaxy’s visit was a financial windfall for the club and a galvanizing event for the greater Triangle soccer community. It accelerated construction of WakeMed Stadium’s North Stands, and the three-game ticket bundle sold for the match paid dividends through even the final regular season home match of the season, which set a club attendance record for a home league game.
This year, there’s as little chance of Landon Donovan or Robbie Keane taking the field at WakeMed Park as there was David Beckham a year ago. However, it’s not every year that the defending MLS champion comes to town… well, maybe it is.
“I just think it’s a great occasion for us, for our supporters to come out and watch what has been the best team in the United States for the last four or five years.”