CARY — The Carolina RailHawks rallied at the end of the regular season to earn a top-four finish in the North American Soccer League standings. Riding that momentum, the team is now one of the last four standing in the NASL playoffs.
Two second-half goals lifted the fourth-seeded RailHawks to a 3-1 win against the fifth-seeded Fort Lauderdale Strikers Saturday night.
Carolina will play either the Tampa Bay Rowdies or NASL regular-season champion San Antonio in a home-and-away playoff series decided on total goals.
Carolina will host the first leg next Saturday, then hit the road for the second leg the following weekend, which works well for coach Colin Clarke.
In 2010, Clarke led the Puerto Rico Islanders to a league championship while playing three two-leg rounds as the lowest seed, always hosting the first game then hitting the road for the second.
“It’s important for us to get a positive result and win next week so that when we go on the road the following week, in some ways, we’re in control of how the game should be played out,” Clarke said.
The playoffs are re-seeded after every round, so who the RailHawks play will be determined by who wins Sunday’s other single-game quarterfinal between sixth-seed Minnesota and third-seeded Puerto Rico.
Carolina ended the season 4-2-4 thanks to a variety of changes, all of which were on display against the Strikers.
Recent newcomers Jordan Graye and Henry Kalungi each started on the back line, while another late addition, forward Matt Luzunaris, was subbed onto the field late.
Formerly the team’s super-sub, midfielder Tiyi Shipalane started again along the right side and netted two goals, one in the 52nd minute and another in the 67th. This game had Brian Shriver alongside Jason Garey.
Shriver, who spent most of the season injured and as a midfielder, found chemistry with Shipalane and assisted on the final goal.
“They’ve been training like that all week. They’ve been buzzing, flying all over the place,” Clarke said. “Brian can play anywhere.. His enthusiasm and his work rate is second to none. We started in a 4-4-2 tonight and changed it to a 4-3-3 about halfway through the half.”
Carolina went up 1-0 on 33rd minute goal from defensive midfielder Amir Lowery. Lowery’s first goal of the season came after Garey hesitated to test Strikers goalkeeper Matt Glaeser, then laid off a pass for the Wake Forest graduate.
Nick Zimmerman assisted to Shipalane in the 52nd minute to give Carolina a 2-0 lead.
Fort Lauderdale cut the lead to 2-1 in the 61st as Abe Thompson, who was subbed on in the 18th minute after an early injury to forward Andy Herron, beat goalkeeper Ray Burse. Thompson was unmarked in the box when he received a ball from Lance Laing and chested it down.
Shipalane kept threatening the Strikers, and as Fort Lauderdale pushed forward, Carolina put a flurry of counterattacking shots on frame in the final minutes.