CARY, N.C. – You could tell that the LA Galaxy wanted to beat the Carolina RailHawks in fifth-round U.S. Open Cup play that took place on the Koka Booth Stadium field at WakeMed Soccer Park on Tuesday.
The manner in which they sat on the field and hung their heads in defeat, losing 1-0 to their host following a 105th-minute goal from Daniel Jackson was telling.
It was Jackson’s goal that finished it, but it was goalkeeper Scott Goodwin’s stellar eight-save performance coupled with a backline defensive performance that frustrated LA’s strikers repeatedly as they launched 31 shot shots toward the Carolina goal that defined it.
“We had to dig in,” RailHawks head coach Colin Clarke said.
“We threw our bodies on the line and we blocked shots and Scott’s comin’ up with big saves. It was a special night, but everyone contributed to it.”
The four-time Major League Soccer (MLS) champions brought a top-level squad of players after suffering two consecutive defeats in Cup play to their North American Soccer League (NASL) opponent – losing 2-1 in 2012 and being shut out 2-0 in 2013.
“Well, over the past few years we’ve played this competition with a very congested schedule, and we had other competitions,” Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan said.
“So we had to mix and match. This was the year where we had an opportunity to bring fresher guys and more first line guys that were able to contribute and we still have had a layoff, so I think a few of our guys were rusty tonight. But on paper we clearly had our strongest lineup.”
The Galaxy didn’t want to lose – not with the roster they brought – but they did.
They not only brought U.S. Men’s National Team and MLS’ all-time scorer Landon Donovan with them, but Ireland’s all-time scorer and captain Robbie Keane to launch dynamically-charged balls towards the RailHawks goal.
Neither of them could do it – nor could Juninho, Sarvas, or Zardes, among others.
It left a bad taste in Donovan’s mouth afterwards even as he offered a backhanded compliment to Carolina.
“Well, you have to give them a lot of credit; I think 99 times out of 100, we win that game,” Donovan said.
“They had everything go their way tonight. They played well, they defended well, their goalie had one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen. They got the goal that they needed.”
Looking at it the other way, the Railhawks maintained a perfect 3-0 record over the Galaxy, and posted a win that also extended their unbeaten dominance at home to 23 matches.
It came on the team’s retrofitted training field as a re-sodding project to the stadium’s main field required bringing in and renting temporary bleachers, tents, tables and chairs to create and provide the right atmosphere for such a high-profile match.
“Does that count as a road game?” Clarke jokingly asked as he peered over to team president Curt Johnson to confirm the streak was extended.
“If we had lost, yes,” Johnson replied with a smile.
With Donovan left off the American squad currently competing at the World Cup in Brazil, his presence in front of a sold out crowd of 3,000 screaming fans in the smaller confines of the RailHawks’ secondary facility enhanced the atmosphere and excitement for what turned out to be an exciting 120-minute battle on the pitch.
It might have run a little too long for the Galaxy as the lighting was dimmer than expected and was noted.
”I think it was outstanding except the lighting was terrible,” Sarachan said.
“Whether that was taken into consideration, at seven o’clock, it’s terrific; at nine o’clock, it’s not great. So if I had any complaints, or there were any complaints, is that it’s not conducive to a night game to be fair. Now, did it play into us losing? Probably not, but if you’re going to host it, you need the proper set up. But other than that, I thought it was a good environment really. The field played great.”
Clarke concurred on the field conditions and what it took for Carolina team personnel to pull it off.
“Under tough circumstances with havin’ to play out on Field 2, I think you have to mention the staff and what they’ve done,” Clarke said.
“They put that together on short notice. I thought it looked professional. I thought it looked very well set up. It was great to play on and I think that goes a long way to winnin’ the game. I just want to thank them because they did a great job.”
It was indeed an ambient and cozy environment for professional soccer and what eventually transpired was a match that consisted of numerous individual competitions for ball possession and space that made it so exciting to watch.
One-on-one battles were evident right from the start as RailHawks defender Daniel Scott along with Goodwin kept Keane busy and increasingly frustrated all night as LA steadily maintained ball possession for long durations of time.
At the other end, goalkeeper Jamie Penedo along with sizable defenders in Leonardo and Kofi Opare held a strong Galaxy back line that repelled Carolina’s smaller forwards Zach Schilawski, Cesar Elizondo, and Enzo Martinez for much of the game.
The Galaxy’s Robbie Rogers managed to curl in many crosses into the box from the left side, but the RailHawks’ Connor Tobin and Ty Shipalane among others were close by at every step.
As both teams’ efforts following 90 minutes plus extra time was not enough to decide a winner, the two 15-minute overtime periods that they played set the stage for the dramatic surge from Jackson that finally decided it.
“He’s quick,” Clarke said of the 24-year old rookie forward who was selected by Real Salt Lake in the 2014 MLS Super Draft.
“He’s very, very quick. He’s come in – I don’t know if raw is the right word – but he’s come into an excellent environment, taken a little bit of time to adjust, but he’s worked very, very hard during training and after training to improve and to continue to work on his weaknesses to make him better…He keeps workin’ and keeps scorin’ goals, he’ll be playin’ at the next level. He’s got something you can’t teach, and that’s pace. His work ethic is very, very good and he’s continued to work at his game.”
It was that explosive pace that propelled Jackson past one final Galaxy defender as Nick Zimmerman found him streaking down the right side of the field.
Jackson’s quick touch pushed the ball further ahead and set up a one-on-one shot attempt against Penedo which he converted successfully as the ball flew between the diving keeper ‘s outstretched arms and the right post .
“I just thought I’d blast it and see where it goes, “Jackson said.
“It went near-post, and it was a pretty good rip and it went in.”
The goal sent the crowd into a frenzied celebration, but only increased the thickness of the humid air hovering over the field as the Galaxy proceeded to dominate possession for the remainder of the game in hopes of scoring an equalizer.
The RailHawks continued to throw every ounce of their being in front of repeated passes, crosses and shot attempts to hold on for the victory.
“It felt like an NHL hockey game,” Sarachan said.
“There must’ve been, I swear, 30 blocked shots – guys diving in front of shots, crosses. That’s a testament to the group of fighting and digging in.”
Dig in they did, and the Carolina RailHawks truly earned their shutout victory over an opponent that didn’t plan to lose except for that one time in 99-out-of-a-100 times, according to Donovan’s math.
The victory over LA carried Carolina into the quarterfinal round of Hunt Open Cup play to host another MLS squad, FC Dallas, on the main field at WakeMed on Wed., July 9.