CARY — With an 0-4-1 skid in USL First Division play behind them, there was a definitive sense of relief on the Carolina RailHawks' sideline after Friday's 1-0 win over Portland at WakeMed Soccer Park.
"The relief is knowing we were good," said Carolina coach Scott Schweitzer, whose team remains unbeaten (3-0-3) at home. "We just need to play. Forget about everything else, just play, and have fun, enjoy it, play for each other, attack and play soccer."
In a team meeting earlier in the week, players and coaches de-emphasized the team's standing in the league table (ninth of 11 teams entering Friday's match) and focused on the things they could control, such as their play.
The new focus paid immediate dividends. Carolina midfielder Martin Nunez notched the game's only goal four minutes in Friday.
On a counterattack started by David Stokes out of the back, Dan Antoniuk played a ball to Caleb Norkus outside the Timbers' penalty area. As two Portland defenders closed in, Norkus popped the ball out to Nunez, who then slotted the ball under the outstretched hand of Portland goalkeeper Ray Burse.
"The first 30 minutes, I'm just trying to explode and take on people, and it's working," said Nunez, who has scored two goals for Carolina (4-4-5) this season, both in the opening 10 minutes of a game.
Staked to an early lead, the RailHawks' defense rediscovered its form and played likely its best match in a month. In the previous five matches, Carolina conceded 12 goals.
Goalkeeper Chris McClellan earned his fourth shutout of the season, making five saves and raising his total to 56, which leads USL-1. But the clean sheet was a team effort.
"We've had some shutouts before, but they've been Chris coming up huge with some amazing saves," said Steve Curfman, who has shifted from his role as an outside midfielder to right back during the last three games. "He made some saves today, but we didn't have to count on him to save us today, which was big."
As Portland (4-5-6) opened up its attack and went for the equalizer during the final 20 minutes, the RailHawks nearly punched a few more in. Phillip Long, Connally Edozien and Ryan Solle had chances that went just wide or were turned away late.
The free-spirited, late-game attack was an indication of the team's new mind-set.
"What we said was we can't be afraid to make a mistake," Schweitzer said. "We've got to know there's good enough guys behind us. The balls we weren't playing, now we're going. Now we're attacking."