Carolina RailHawks Advance to NASL Semifinal Playoffs
A season of transition for the Carolina RailHawks, which has included plenty of ups and downs, took a very positive turn as Coach Colin Clarke’s side advanced to the semifinal round of the NASL playoffs by defeating the Fort Lauderdale Strikers 3-1 Saturday night in Cary, North Carolina. Two RailHawks who left for greener pastures last season only to return this year provided the heroics in front of a crowd of 2,500 at WakeMed Soccer Park in a match delayed an hour by bad weather. The RailHawks will face either the Tampa Bay Rowdies or San Antonio Scorpions next weekend at WakeMed Soccer Park in the first leg of their semifinal matchup, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s Puerto Rico Islanders – Minnesota Stars FC fixture.
The RailHawks finished the 2012 season undefeated in their last four matches, but three of those matches were draws, so there was no strong pregame evidence that the RailHawks would snatch Saturday’s playoff win other than the poor road form of the Strikers throughout the season. The Strikers came into the match having won only once in fourteen road fixtures.
Neither club was able to dent the scoreboard in the first half hour of play Saturday night. Strikers’ Coach Daryl Shore was forced to use an early substitute as his side lost attacker Andy Herron in the 17th minute due to injury. Herron was replaced by player-coach Abe Thompson, who chipped in four goals and five assists during the regular season. The Strikers then surrendered the game’s first goal fifteen minutes later, as a defensive turnover deep in Strikers’ territory gave Jason Garey an opportunity to move onto goal from the right flank. Garey was bottled up by the Strikers defense, but kept possession. When the ball came to RailHawks veteran Amir Lowery. the defender aired a finely aimed shot into the Strikers’ net to give the RailHawks a 1-0 lead that they would keep into halftime. Lowery, who left the RailHawks after the 2010 season to play last year with the MLS-bound Montreal Impact, was re-signed by the RailHawks last February. The visiting Strikers, though, actually had a 6-4 advantage in shots taken in the first half.
Speedy forward Ty Shipalane doubled Carolina’s advantage six minutes into the second half. A long throw-in down the left sideline found a streaking Brian Shriver, who laid off to Nick Zimmerman. The RailHawks’ leading scorer selflessly passed to an open Ty Shipalane, whose shot deflected off the leg of Strikers’ goalkeeper Matt Glaeser into the far corner of the net. The goal was Shipalane’s sixth of the season.
The Strikers halved the RailHawks’ lead at the hour mark. Defender Lance Laing made a strong, stripping tackle just inside Carolina territory and then placed a beautiful curving aerial pass to Thompson. The veteran sniper skillfully chested the ball down and hit a left-footed volley into the far corner of the RailHawks net, giving Shore’s team new life with thirty minutes to play.
“When we made it 2-1 we thought we’d get back into it, but we gave the game away with a couple of mistakes,” said Shore. “We won’t make any excuses for ourselves. We weren’t good enough tonight and it’s a disappointing end to the season, but we’ll regroup and hopefully be back next year.”
Clarke’s men sealed the deal minutes later, with Shipalane again the hero. Former Striker Shriver received a pass on the left, hopped over the defender’s challenge and angled a perfect low pass to Shipalane waiting right outside the Strikers’ area. Matt Glaeser charged out of the net but Shipalane coolly slid the ball under the oncoming keeper. Shipalane played in five matches for the RailHawks in 2010 before returning to his native South Africa to play professionally in 2011. Shipalane signed with the RailHawks again in January of this year, and has been a difference-maker for Carolina whether as a starter or coming off the bench.
Despite later fine efforts by Glaeser to keep the Strikers in the match, the Florida club could find no further goals and saw their season end in disappointment. Meanwhile, the RailHawks have to feel good about their playoff chances no matter who they face, as they play the first leg of their two-legged semifinal series at home.
“Today we played a very good game,” said RailHawks head coach Colin Clarke. “The team definitely played playoff soccer tonight and we got the result we needed. Now we need to focus on our next opponent and hopefully we will have another loud, passionate crowd to get us off to another good start next Saturday.”