CARY, N.C. – The Carolina RailHawks’ quest to win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup ended with a 5-2 quarterfinal loss to FC Dallas at WakeMed Soccer Park on Wednesday.
Even while Zack Schilawski and Enzo Martinez each scored for Carolina, Dallas’ top scorers – Blas Perez (3 goals), Fabian Castillo (1), Mauro Diaz (1) – took care of finding ways to put the ball past goalkeeper Scott Goodwin who made four saves and suffered his first loss.
“First off, disappointment,” Carolina head coach Colin Clarke said.
“We got beat and it hasn’t happened here for a long, long time. I thought we played pretty well. We competed with them. I thought we passed the ball, moved the ball. I just think the little details in each box – just defensively and if we had been clinical in the other box – they were better than us at that tonight.”
As only one of two North American Soccer League (NASL) squads remaining in the tournament, it was a matter of respect and pride for Carolina to try to beat another Major League Soccer (MLS) opponent.
Though it was the first-ever match between the two clubs, there were ties between them coming in.
Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja used to play for and was an assistant coach under Clarke who led the Texas-based MLS team from 2003-2006, a tenure with the club that eventually led up to a Western division first place finish.
It’s the reason Clarke has always held the U.S. Open Cup competition in high esteem, as the event’s namesake, Lamar Hunt and his family are owners of FC Dallas, and were his former employer.
The visiting MLS side was no stranger to Open Cup competition, having won the title back in 1997.
As the only club to have made 14 appearances in the quarterfinals, more than any other, Dallas’ victory over Carolina moved them on to the semifinals for the eighth time.
“It is important for me, this trophy, and for the club, the organization,” Pareja said before the game.
“The importance of this game is high, so we’re going to take that approach.”
Pareja wasn’t kidding in how serious his club would be to ensure an eventual victory that also ended the RailHawks’ 23-game unbeaten streak at home in Open Cup and NASL play combined.
Dallas started with five players along the center line when they kicked off and aggressively charged with possession into the Carolina half of the field.
They were a long, lean and fast squad that transitioned effectively and efficiently from the back third, through the middle to the front third, and back.
However, as much as they pressured the RailHawks early on, Dallas didn’t expect to be down 1-0 in the ninth minute of play after Schilawski converted a low cross from Martinez that made into through two defenders in the box before he redirected it into the back of the goal.
“The organization that Carolina showed today was very difficult, especially in the first half,” Pareja said afterwards.
“We decided to put some pressure there and they made us change the plan quick.”
Pareja made his adjustments and Dallas continued to press repeatedly until Perez scored his first of the game in the 23rd minute to tie it up 1-1.
The RailHawks didn’t back down and kept pace with Dallas, but Perez was the recipient of a hard-fought cross from JeVaughn Watson that quickly put Dallas ahead 2-1 just 11 minutes later.
As Carolina defender Austen King slid to tackle Watson, the Dallas midfielder managed to push the ball forward at the right edge of the box and got a few steps on King and challenged Goodwin along the goal line until he dropped it back to Perez who made no mistake with the opportunity.
Having beaten two MLS squads, Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy, to get to this point in this year’s competition, the RailHawks understood that they couldn’t back down.
As a result, their pushback was rewarded with a penalty kick opportunity in the 37th minute of play.
While Carolina midfielder Cesar Elizondo’s shot attempt at the top of the box was blocked, the rebound was subsequently hand-touched by Dallas defender Moises Hernandez and presented the RailHawks with the opportunity to tie the game.
Martinez took care of it as his authoritative 12-yard blast beat Dallas goalkeeper Raul Fernandez.
If it was goals that the crowd of 4,169 in attendance wanted to see, it was what they got as Martinez’s kick set the game even again at 2-2.
Unfortunately, the home crowd didn’t get to see any more tallies from the home side from that point forward.
Dallas restarted its offense and Castillo scored the go-ahead goal in the 44th minute to give the visitors the 3-2 lead heading into halftime.
“They just had players that were really good on the ball and they were really fast,” Martinez said.
“It was hard for us to adjust to that…Today we just paid for each mistake we made. Every chance they had, they put it away.”
Faced with a one-goal deficit, the RailHawks made their pushes during the final half, but could not connect on any of their opportunities as a suffocating Dallas back line did its job to thwart each one.
The effort to even the score wore Carolina down and provided Castillo and Diaz their chances respectively to put the game out of reach as they scored Dallas’ four and fifth goals in the 89th and final minute of the three allocated for extra time.
It was a hard-fought effort, but turning the ball over more than it could afford to do so against an exceptional possession squad with a dynamic transition game during the final 45 minutes of worked against Carolina.
Yes, it was a hurtful loss, but not one that Clarke was going to pout over.
“A lot of positives,” Clarke said.
“I thought we were very good tonight – I really do. I think some of our passing, particularly in the second half when they set back in a 10-behind-the-ball, we were able to find gaps and hurt them and create some good stuff, but obviously they hurt us in the counter-attack after that. But, a lot of positives to be taken from it.”
Similar to last season, Carolina and the NASL’s journey to claiming the national tournament title ended with a loss to a better MLS squad.
With their Cup run ended, the RailHawks will now redirect their energy and focus on upcoming NASL competition and work to earn a berth in the league’s championship game.
Carolina starts its NASL Fall Season schedule on Saturday when first-year club, Indy Eleven, travels to North Carolina for the first time.
“Now we need to find a way and we will,” Clarke concluded.
“It’s gone. We need to start another run, unbeaten run, and that will start on Saturday and get off to a positive start in what we’re all about which is our NASL season and look to get into that final.”
CAR: GK Goodwin, D Low, D Scott, D Au. King, D Tobin, M Davidson, M Elizondo (Zimmerman, 71), M Martinez, M Albadawi (King, 85), M Shipalane (Jackson, 87), F Schilawski;
FCD:GK Fernandez, D Hernandez (Keel, 46), D Hedges, D Loyd, D Watson, M Castillo, M Thomas (Jacobson, 28), M Ulloa, M Esocobar (Diaz, 69), F Akindele, F Perez;
GOALS: CAR: Schilawski (Martinez), 9; Martinez (penalty kick), 37 – FCD:Perez (Akindele), 23; Perez (Watson), 34; Castillo (Escobar), 44; Diaz (Castillo), 89; Perez (Castillo), 90+;
CAUTIONS: CAR:Albadawi, 15; Low, 61 – FCD:Jacobson, 76;