CARY — Next weekend will be a tall order for the Carolina RailHawks in the North American Soccer League semifinals.
Carolina will need to defeat the Tampa Bay Rowdies by two goals in order to keep its season alive after falling behind 2-1 during Saturday’s first leg of the home-and-away series.
The RailHawks have a bitter taste heading into that Oct. 13 game for two reasons: giving up the series’ go-ahead goal in the 86th minute and for not converting on its advantages in shots (17-9), corner kicks (6-1) and possession.
“What’s important is goals, and we didn’t score enough tonight. We weren’t good enough in the final third,” Carolina coach Colin Clarke said. “We didn’t make enough good decisions around the goal, people shooting from ridiculous angles when there were perhaps there were better options on.”
For the first 45 minutes, Clarke thought his fourth-seeded Carolina team had “dominated” the second-seeded Rowdies, but both teams entered halftime scoreless.
Tampa went on top first as forward Mike Ambersley stepped in front of teammate Shane Hill’s pass that was intended for another Rowdies player. Ambersley’s overlapping run in the box freed him from his defender, and he slotted in a goal in the 64th minute.
The RailHawks’ only goal didn’t come in the run of play.
Floyd Franks was tripped in the box, drawing a penalty, which teammate Brian Shriver converted in the 78th minute to level the match 1-1.
With eight minutes left in regulation, RailHawks right back Jordan Graye had to be removed from the game with injury, believed to be a groin pull. Substitute Cory Elenio was tested quickly.
Elenio lost Tampa’s Daniel Antoniuk in the box, and he headed in the goal from Evans Frimpong.
“I think we lost the ball out wide, and there was one man in the box and the cross had come in,” said Sam Stockley, who was playing in his 599th professional game. “It’s unfortunate. I think (Cory) just maybe lost him on the back post. And it’s a tough one for Cory because I know how he’s feeling.”
Graye’s status is unknown for the second leg of the series.
If the RailHawks can even the series on aggregate goals after regulation, the two sides will play two 15-minute overtime periods to their completion. If the series is still tied, the advancing team will be decided on corner kicks.
Clarke does not expect Tampa to change strategy with the one-goal lead.
“I don’t think they’re a team that can sit back and defend. That’s not their M.O. and neither is ours,” Clarke said. “I think it’ll be another very similiar to this one tonight, and you hope you come out on the better end of the chances you’ve created.”