CARY — It was another home game where the Carolina RailHawks snatched a draw from the jaws of victory.
Two late goals by the visiting Tampa Bay Rowdies – in the 86th minute and again in stoppage time – broke the spirits of a RailHawks team that was hoping to pull out a win one week removed from the franchise’s worst loss ever.
But instead, Tampa and Carolina exited WakeMed Soccer Park with a 3-3 tie on Saturday, the fourth game this season where the RailHawks’ late second-half lead was met with a back-breaking equalizer.
“We’ve got to learn collectively, as a team, how we can close games out,” goalkeeper Ray Burse said. “Playoffs are nearing, and that’s something we’ve got to learn to do before we hopefully enter that.”
The second half made for wild bookends – a bizarre opening few minutes and a intense battle during the final few.
Tampa (10-4-3) had gone on top in the 17th minute as Shane Hill volleyed in a goal from 12 yards out. Carolina scored on a Nick Zimmerman header after a cross from captain Kupono Low in the 43rd minute to make it 1-1 at halftime.
Zimmerman tallied his 11th goal of the year in the 49th minute on an assist from Jason Garey, and three minutes later the game took a turn for the outrageous.
A quick throw-in in the Carolina third caught many Tampa defenders off-guard, and Garey tucked in his second goal of the season with much protest from the Rowdies’ side.
Tampa coach Ricky Hill came onto the field in protest, saying that RailHawks mascot Swoops had taken the throw-in. Garey said it was Mike Palacio, but it was unclear if the mascot had perhaps advanced the spot of the throw-in by helping Palacio collect the out-of-bounds ball.
The Rowdies coach was sent off during his protest, in which two RailHawks players were seen laughing at the unusual, but perhaps not unfounded, accusation. Shane Hill, Ricky’s son, finished the game as the de facto coach (though he took signals from the stands) since he was subbed out at halftime.
“He actually said he thought Swoops took the throw-in,” RailHawks coach Colin Clarke said. “I’m being serious. I didn’t see it. If (Swoops) did, it was a good one.”
The RailHawks’ two-goal lead was cut to one by Mulholland in the 86th, but it looked as though it would stand after goalkeeper Ray Burse saved a penalty kick by Mike Ambersley. The lead again looked safe after the ensuing corner kick met a Rowdies player and needed to be headed off the line by reserve midfielder Tiyi Shipalane.
But the next corner kick met Takuya Yamada perfectly, and he volleyed in the tying score with just a few minutes left in the match.
With nine games left in the season – and six of those on the road, where Carolina is 1-5-2 this year – the pressure to peak before the playoffs is rising, as is the pressure to make the playoffs. The RailHawks (6-6-7) sit in the sixth and final North American Soccer League postseason spot, eight points clear of Atlanta.
“We need to get better as a defensive unit, as individuals defensively, to have a real chance of winning the championship. We’ve got to go into some tough places and win our man-v-man battles and 50-50 balls,” Clarke said. “At some stage, you’ve got to win the fight to win the war... we didn’t win enough of those individual battles tonight.”