Carolina RailHawks captain Austin Da Luz said the team was “heartbroken” after missing out on chances to clinch the spring season title and the rights to host the North American Soccer League Soccer Bowl.
“We know how that feels like to have it slip through our fingers,” Da Luz said. “This time, hopefully we’ll be a little bit mentally stronger and close it out.”
With the fall NASL season more than halfway through – eight games down, six to go – the RailHawks’ buzz-phrase has been “mental strength”; but more is needed.
In two of their last three matches, the RailHawks have given up stoppage-time goals and lost points in the standings as a result. A stoppage-time penalty kick at San Antonio last week ended a 2-1 loss. A stoppage-time own goal Sept. 7 ended in a 2-2 tie at Tampa Bay.
On Sept. 14, it forced a 2-2 home tie against Tampa Bay after having dominated most of the game, giving up two goals in a three-minute span.
By not being able to close out games, Carolina has been passed in the NASL fall standings by the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies. Minnesota United and Fort Lauderdale Strikers are now tied with Carolina in the standings, although the RailHawks hold tiebreakers.
Away troubles: The RailHawks haven’t won on the road all year. After going 0-2-4 (W-L-T) in spring, they are 0-3-1 in the fall.
After being at home this Saturday against Fort Lauderdale, the team is on the road for the next three weekends – at Edmonton, at New York, at Minnesota – then home for the final two weekends against Atlanta and San Antonio.
Shoring up the midfield: The RailHawks took a bold move to change the complexion of its midfield when they traded then-Capt. Floyd Franks to Minnesota United for Bryan Arguez during the break between the spring and fall seasons.
But Arguez was arrested and is accused of rape after the team’s second game of the fall season in Atlanta. He was released afterward.
The team has looked to other players to fill the void left by Franks’ departure.
Breiner Ortiz, Nick Millington and Kenney Walker, a natural winger on loan from the the Los Angeles Galaxy, have been used in central midfield. Coach Colin Clarke lamented not being able to find the right combination there.
Da Luz has played on the wing this fall, and even forward Zack Schilawski has been used.
James standing out: If there is a defensive player up for MVP this season, center back Julius James is that player.
The former MLS player wins headers and is physical, but his quick feet separate him from others around the league.
Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald has been solid to the point no one brings up his steady play anymore.
Tiyi Shipalane (three goals, three assists) and Brian Shriver (12 goals) have still meant more to the RailHawks throughout the course of the year, as James has battled some injuries.
Still no Zimmerman: Nick Zimmerman was the second-leading scorer in last year’s NASL but has not returned to the pitch since an injury while in training camp trying out for Sporting Kansas City of MLS. Another goal-scorer who hasn’t seen much of the field due to injury is Nick Addlery.
Addlery has been used in the last two Carolina games, his first this year after being one of the RailHawks’ few free agent acquisitions.
Attendance staying steady: This season continues to be one of the best seasons for the RailHawks in the stands. After averaging 4,707 fans per NASL game in the spring – a number that excludes three crowds of 5,000-plus in the preseason and the U.S. Open Cup – the team is averaging 4,635 fans this fall.
The RailHawks haven’t lost at home this season in U.S. Open Cup or NASL play. They are 1-1-0 in preseason friendlies against the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer and Pumas UNAM of the Mexican Primera League.