Ryan Finley’s 1-on-1 challenge and boot past RailHawks keeper Brian Sylvestre made the difference and gave the Independence, representatives of the United Soccer League, a significant milestone win.
Making its seventh appearance in the national competition, it was the quickest exit the RailHawks have made in the past three seasons, particularly after defeating the MLS-champion Los Angeles Galaxy in each of those years (2012-2014).
“Disappointing,” RailHawks head coach Colin Clarke said.
“We’ve been good in this competition in the last three years, and very disappointed to go out at the first hurdle, you know. I didn’t think we did enough to the extent to say we deserved to win it.”
The loss came at the end of a day that started with the announcement from the United States Department of Justice that Aaron Davidson, the president of the team’s ownership company Traffic Sports USA, was one of 14 people indicted in a FIFA racketeering conspiracy and corruption scandal.
A solemn atmosphere filled with a lot of grey surrounded the soccer world in general, and literally made its presence felt as a set of rain showers fell and delayed the game’s start by 30 minutes.
However, even with all of that going on, it didn’t deter 1,463 spectators from filling seats in various sections around the pitch, cheering as loudly as they could as both the RailHawks and Independence played a spirited and emotional match.
Referee Matthew Franz let the two sides battle it out with a total of 23 free kicks afforded (Charlotte – 12, Carolina – 11) while five players were booked with yellow cards.
In the end, the team that lapsed first, suffered for it.
With audible screams of excitement emanating from the visiting team’s locker room in the background, Sylvestre, on loan back from MLS’ Philadelphia Union, expressed his disappointment in the loss.
“We didn’t play to the potential that we could have played to,” he said.
“Everybody wasn’t good enough today.”
Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries described what an emotional high his team was feeling as a result of beating an NASL team.
“It does mean a lot to us,” Jeffries said.
“There are several things that go into the game. For us, we’re a new team coming together. We’ve actually not had that much success on the road to this point, so being able to come in and win a game on the road…we have a lot of respect for the RailHawks. I think being able to win the game at their place and against them, you know, that’s huge.”
During the first half, Carolina put together some dangerous attacks but couldn’t finish on them as Charlotte keeper John Berner received solid support from his back line.
A corner kick early on found the RailHawks’ scoring co-leader, Nacho Novo, lined up, but his shot attempt was blocked.
Berner left the game in the 39th minute after being shaken up while playing for a loose ball and colliding with Carolina’s Nazmi Albadawi.
The RailHawks didn’t ease up and tested replacement keeper Diego Restrepo quickly.
Albadawi connected with a shot following a cross in the 44th minute, but the keeper was in position to make the stop.
At the other end, Sylvestre made a diving stop of his own on Carlos Alavarez to keep the teams scoreless at halftime.
Physical play and emotions continued to escalate as both teams presented numerous dangerous attacks throughout the second half.
Carolina’s Jamie Dell received an ideal centering ball from Wes Knight inside the Charlotte 18, but his shot was blocked and kept both teams scoreless through 58 minutes.
Carolina’s other scoring co-leader, Ty Shipalane, made successive rushes down the right side and into the box, but his crosses or shot attempts never made it through to the goal.
Finley broke the tie in the 81st minute when he snuck behind the Carolina back line, with no offside call made, and was left all alone to volley the high cross past a diving Sylvestre.
Sylvestre thought the play was offside.
“I thought it was off,” he said.
“Then everybody stopped playing and he shot it. Nothing else to explain it – everybody thought it was off, but it was on.”
Trailing 1-0, Carolina pressed for the next five minutes with repeated advances that resulted in advantageous corners, but each were fronted by a massive pile of bodies and limbs that blocked each ensuing shot attempt.
The closest Carolina came to evening the score occurred when Dell worked down the left side and crossed the ball into Restrepo’s crease where Shipalane headed the ball wide.
Even with four minutes of extra time, the RailHawks were unable to tie the game and fell to its opponent, one that is currently in last place in its league.
It was that kind of game, and part of a season that’s frustrating Clarke and his team as it tries to break through and play to its full potential.
“We’re not very far away,” Clarke concluded.
“We need to get better. We need to bring more excitement to our home fans. We need to make things happen. We need to get after people and set a higher tempo. We need to get more shots on goal. We need to make it like it used to be.”
CAR: Sylvestre; Knight, Scott, Tobin, Low (Dell, 52nd); Thompson, Hlavaty (Catic 84th), Wagner (Danso, 91st), Albadawi; Shipalane, Novo;
CLT: Berner (Restrepo, 40th); Newnam, Jerome, Duckett, Slogic; Ribeiro, Del Piccolo; Alvarez (Thompson 88th), Herrera, A. Martinez; Zahorski (Finley, 67th)
GOALS: CAR: –; CLT: Finley (81st)
CAUTIONS: CAR: Thompson (34th), Dell (55th), Novo (77th); CLT: Ribeiro (57th), Herrera (77th), Finley (82nd)
EJECTION: CAR: –; CLT: —