Four times the Carolina RailHawks faced the Tampa Bay Rowdies during the 2012 NASL regular season, and four times the teams walked off the pitch after 90 minutes having finished where they started: a tie score. That’s not to say there were not incidents of supremacy exercised by one side or the other. The Rowdies outplayed the RailHawks during their 1-1 draw in St. Petersburg on April 18, outshooting Carolina 22-10. Tampa Bay outshot Carolina by 12 in Cary on August 4 but trailed by two goals going into the 86th minute, when two late strikes by the Rowdies rendered a 3-3 final. Still, most of the matchups felt like the nil-nil draw two weeks ago, during which neither side—comprised as they both were with a smattering of reservists—differentiated themselves.
Thus, it was a wonder to witness the rejuvenated RailHawks—unbeaten over their latest five matches and only one loss over their last nine—dominate the Rowdies during the opening half of Saturday’s clash at WakeMed Soccer Park, the first leg of the NASL playoff semifinals series that will conclude next week in Florida. Tampa Bay managed much of the possession but saw any venture towards goal thwarted by a suddenly stingy RailHawks defense, resulting in a meager two shots, neither on target. Meanwhile, the duo of Brian Shriver and Ty Shipalane combined for eight of Carolina’s nine first-half shots, launching numerous sorties into the attacking third.
However, style points don’t equal goals, and none of the RailHawks' frequent forays found the net. And despite eight more team chances in the second stanza, the game ended in another distinctive fashion: a victory…for the Rowdies, 2-1.
The first-half highlights belonged to the ‘Hawks. In the 9th minute, a Shipalane cross was dummied by Jason Garey in favor of Shriver situated far post. However, his shot was gathered by Rowdies goalkeeper extraordinaire Jeff Attinella. Shriver initiated a trademark Shipalane break in the 14th minute, but Attinella saved the midfielder’s open attempt. In the 19th, Shipalane used his distinctive step-over to create an opening and cross, but Shriver skied a well-weighted sitter. Floyd Franks played a pinpoint ball ahead in the 31st minute to Shriver, who pushed his left-footer wide right. A final Shipalane blast over goal ended the fast-paced first half sans any score.
“We completely dominated the first 45 minutes—I thought we were great,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “We moved, we played, we passed it. We could have blown the game wide open in the first and we didn’t. Then you’re always fearful of what happens.”
What happened, after a couple more stabs by Shriver/Shipalane, was a Rowdies goal in the 63rd minute. An innocent throw-in off the left wing eventually found midfielder Shane Hill, whose easy grounder into the box found forward Mike Ambersley cutting in front of teammate Keith Savage. The maneuverer crossed up the Carolina defenders, giving Ambersley a clear path to goal and a shot across the face of Burse that found the right netting.
Carolina nearly equalized in the 67th minute when a dispossession by right back Jordan Graye launched another RailHawks counterattack. Shriver sent the ball back out to Graye on the right wing, who then played it forward to an overlapping Shriver. Shriver gathered and crossed the ball into the goalmouth to a sliding Shipalane, whose bounding poke was grasped by a diving Attinella mere millimeters short of the goal line.
Carolina finally got on the board in the 78th minute thanks to a contested penalty. Shipalane nudged a pass over to Franks in the box. Franks took a touch cutting across the middle but was upended by the extended leg of defender Andres Arango. Referee Matthew Foerster immediately pointed to the spot, and a gaggle of Rowdies converged on Foerster, Arango drawing a yellow card for dissent in the process.
Although Franks appeared to be playing for the penalty, the contact with Arango’s outstretched extremity was clear.
“Ty was able to get it, played it out to me and I just touched the ball inside,” Franks said. “As soon as I did he stuck his leg up in the air and I tried to get over it. I don’t know what they were upset about, it’s pretty obvious to me.”
Once the rowdy Rowdies were cleared away, Shriver stepped to the spot and confidently buried the PK into the upper right netting to equalize at 1-1. Carolina raced the ball back to midfield, confident the game-winner was mere moments away.
“It’s unfortunate,” said defender Sam Stockley, mastering understatement. “I think [Cory] maybe lost him on the back stick. It’s a tough one for Cory because I know how he’s feeling at the minute and he’s been brilliant all season. It’s one of those things...we’ve got to deal with crosses.”
For Clarke, the loss came down to one thing: lack of finishing.
“You’ve got the stat sheet there,” Clarke blustered. “What’s important is goals, and we didn’t score enough tonight. We weren’t good enough in the final third, we didn’t make good enough decisions around the goal [with] people shooting from ridiculous angles.”
Stockley sounded a different note.
“Once the dust settles, I think it’s a very positive performance,” said Stockley, mastering optimism. “We came out, we created maybe eight chances by halftime even though we only hit the target once. That was something we wanted to continue to do in the second half. We showed good spirit to come back, get the penalty and then it felt like it was all one way. It’s disappointing to concede a goal like that right at the end. But, now we’ve got to go down there and score two goals to get to the championship, and this team is definitely capable of doing that.”
Indeed, the RailHawks can take solace that they displayed tremendous attacking acumen and travel to Tampa only one goal from knotting up the aggregate score in this two-legged semifinal.
“I don’t think [Tampa is] a team that can sit back and defend,” said Clarke. “It’s not their M.O., and neither is [it] ours. I think it will be a game very similar to this one tonight. And you hope you come out on the better end of the chances you create.”
Another interesting statistic also plays in Carolina’s favor. Normally, teams prefer to host the second leg of a two-legged playoff series, believing the home field advantage benefits them in the deciding contest. However, from 2009-2011, there were 16 two-legged playoff series in division 2 U.S. soccer (leagues USL-1, USSF D2 and NASL). The team hosting the first leg—almost always the lower-seeded team—won 11 of those 16 series.
However, the sobering sub-stat for the RailHawks is that no team over those three years that lost the first leg at home went on to win the series. Carolina will attempt to do just that next Saturday, October 13 at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. and the match will be live-streamed online.
One final note on NASL playoff attendance: The official attendance of 3,183 at WakeMed Park Saturday was 700 below the RailHawks’ regular season average of 3,883 (per the compilations at www.kenn.com). Still, it was the largest of the four NASL playoff games played to date, with only one announced attendance—the 2,002 in Puerto Rico for their quarterfinal clash with Minnesota last weekend—exceeded the club’s average.
The overwhelming factor for the relatively low turnouts is the one-week window for marketing these matches. Numbers should pick up next weekend when the venues shift to San Antonio—which averaged 9,176 this year—and Tampa Bay, as both clubs will have had over three weeks to sell tickets. Still, when compared with the costs associated with putting on these short-notice matches—travel, salary, staffing, etc.—these figures provide added insight into the reasoning behind next year’s split-season format adopted by the NASL, which will dispel with protracted playoffs in lieu of a one-game championship final whose location will be known three months in advance.