The last time the Carolina RailHawks faced the Charlotte Eagles in a competitive soccer match was the First Round of the 2010 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The RailHawks won that game 1-0 at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Four years later, another U.S. Open Cup clash between the in-state avian rivals produced a similar outcome. The RailHawks clipped the Eagles 2-0 Wednesday evening in Cary, paced by two first-half goals from Nazmi Albadawi and Jun Marques Davidson. Carolina now advances to the Fourth Round of the 2014 Open Cup and will host Chivas USA of Major League Soccer on June 14.
The win also extends the RailHawks’ home unbeaten streak to 20 games.
Four days following the RailHawks’ draw at NASL-leading Minnesota United FC, manager Colin Clarke ran out a nearly full-strength side against the USL Pro opponent. The lone notable exception was the insertion of backup goalkeeper Scott Goodwin, making his first start since joining Carolina. With a possible MLS home match hanging in the balance, it was a curious decision to leave Akira Fitzgerald, just named NASL Player of the Week for his clean sheet against Minnesota United last Saturday, on the bench.
However, Goodwin proved up to the task. The former UNC Tar Heel standout made five saves to earn a clean sheet, including a couple of leaping fingertip deflections in the second half to preserve the RailHawks’ advantage.
“Scott’s a very good keeper,” Clarke said. “He deserved his chance. He’s worked very hard and pushes Akira every single day. He deserves a chance to play.”
Carolina got that advantage beginning in the 14th minute. With the Eagles playing a high back line coupled with a compact, eight block midfield, the RailHawks met some difficulty cracking the Charlotte defensive alignment. However, RailHawks’ midfielder Ty Shipalane tends to disrupt opponents’ best laid schemes, and so he did again against Charlotte. Driving off the right wing, Shipalane poked a ball into the box that found its way to midfielder Nazmi Albadawi. The former NC State standout gathered possession before turning to fire a left-footed shot that skimmed across the face of Eagles goalkeeper Brock Duckworth and into the far net for a 1-0 lead.
“Ty made a great run,” Albadawi said. “He always attracts two or three defenders whenever he gets the ball. He played me a good ball in, and I was able to turn [the defender] over my shoulder. I just went for it, took a shot with my left foot and it went in far post.”
It was solid outing for Albadawi, who scored his first goal as a RailHawk in his second consecutive start. He proved an effective two-way threat, coupling effective defensive play with dangerous distribution, including several effective long balls over the top of the encroaching Eagles back line.
Davidson said Albadawi did lots of little things to help the RailHawks.
“[Albadawi] was in a spot where he could get the ball and distribute it for us at the right time,” Davidson said. “He played into space when he needed, and he scored a good goal that gave us confidence and made the game easier.”
In the 40th minute, RailHawks center back Toni Stahl left the match after sustaining a couple of first-half knocks, the last a rib injury whose severity remains undetermined.
In the waning seconds of the first half, the RailHawks notched their second goal. Forward Mike Grella blazed a trail toward goal, carrying a defender along the way. Grella’s angled blast was deflected away by Duckworth, but the ricochet bounded toward the center of the box and into the path of a streaking Davidson. The RailHawks’ captain buried the loose ball into an open net.
Davidson, who missed last Saturday’s game at Minnesota in order to attend his sister’s wedding, admitted he can’t remember the last time he scored a goal.
“When the ball went to Grella, I looked around and everyone was tired,” Davidson said. “So I thought this our last chance of the first half, I’m going to spin as hard as I can and see what happens. If Grella scores from that, great. If he doesn’t, I could get the rebound. The rebound happened, so I just had to tap it in.”
A back and forth second half was mostly highlighted by missed opportunities for both teams. Carolina easily could, and probably should have scored two or three additional goals against a tired Eagles team forced to push forward. At the same time, Charlotte generated multiple opportunities, including a whopping 12 corner kicks for the game. In the end, Carolina and Charlotte attempted 11 shots each.
Eagles manager Mark Steffens said it was emblematic of a team that has experienced difficulty scoring goals all season.
“We’re not a high scoring team,” Steffens said. “Some of the guys we signed who we felt like would be goalscorers for us have not produced.”
Steffens also said his team’s recent run of road matches left them flagged coming into a hot, humid midweek match. Earlier this month, Charlotte played two matches in California and another in Arizona. Last Wednesday, the Eagles traveled to Orlando and last Saturday, they played in Richmond, VA. This Saturday’s match back in Charlotte will be the Eagles first home game since April 25.
“We’ve been on the road all month,” Steffens said. “Been out to California and Arizona, so we didn’t have any life tonight. We were dead, not only in our press but in our passing and movement. Everything was off a little bit.”
Clarke was happy with his team’s performance against a higher caliber opponent than the RailHawks have faced to open their U.S. Open Cup account the previous two years.
“I think everyone was maybe expecting it was going to be easy for us to get to the next round,” said Clarke. “But they’re a very good team, and it was a tough night with the humidity. I’m absolutely delighted with the result.”
The RailHawks return to NASL league play this Saturday when they host the Tampa Bay Rowdies. When Carolina hosts Chivas USA in June, it will be the third consecutive year the RailHawks have hosted the MLS side in Open Cup competition.
“We’ve had some great nights in this competition over the last couple of years,” said Clarke, alluding to the RailHawks’ two victories over the LA Galaxy and last year’s win over Chivas USA. “We’re looking for another one on the 14th.”