CARY — As the Carolina RailHawks walked to each section of the WakeMed Soccer Park bleachers to applaud their fans after Sunday's game against Monterrey, a portion of predominantly Hispanic fans congregated near the tunnel that leads to the locker rooms.
Though they were there waiting for their favorite Monterrey players to emerge, they turned their attention toward the RailHawks and returned a round of applause.
The exhibition between the RailHawks and Monterrey, a club from Mexico's first division, officially ended in a 0-0 tie. Los Rayados won 4-1 on penalty kicks, but the RailHawks hope, in the long run, they were the winners.
The vast majority of the 7,155 people who came to the game did so in order to support Monterrey. But after 90 minutes, Carolina owner Brian Wellman believes his team did enough to make further inroads into the Hispanic community and convert some of them to root for his club.
"I think we made huge strides tonight to get more respect from that community," Wellman said. "I have no doubt there will be [additional fan support from Hispanics]."
As the Carolina players lingered on the field, the fans lined the railing of the stands, clamoring for autographs, pictures and handshakes.
Carolina's Brian Levey was a prime example of the fan conversion. The RailHawks' backup goalkeeper, he hadn't played a minute all season until Sunday. Few fans probably knew who he was two hours earlier. By the end of his eight-save shutout, they demanded his postgame attention, too.
The RailHawks' defense, which has been shaky as of late, figured to have its hands full with Monterrey's attack.The visitors have forwards Humberto Suazo, a Chilean international, and Jared Borgetti, a Mexican national team fixture for years. But Carolina played its best game as a defensive unit in weeks.
The RailHawks didn't score, but they attacked with a flourish and entertained as well.
On a 17th-minute breakaway, Carolina's Martin Nunez was tackled just outside the penalty area by Monterrey goalie Christian Martinez. Nunez smacked the ensuing free kick wide right.
"It was close, really close," Nunez said. "I thought I had it."
Monterrey's best scoring chance came three minutes later. On a free kick from the top of the penalty area, midfielder Luis Perez struck the ball over the wall, and Levey flew to his left and tipped it over the crossbar.
In the shootout, Monterrey's Carlos Ochoa, Mauro Cejas, Diego Ordaz and Eduardo Zavala converted their attempts, while Philip Long was the lone RailHawk to do so.