The Carolina RailHawks’ season is over.
In the second leg of the North American Soccer League semifinals Saturday, Carolina and Tampa Bay each scored three goals. The series is decided by total goals, and thanks to Tampa’s 2-1 win in the first leg in Cary, the Rowdies advanced with a 5-4 series win.
This is the third straight season the RailHawks have ended the year in the league semifinals, exiting in the same round last season and finishing runner-up in the 2010 championship.
Changes were made to Carolina’s lineup from the first leg to try to get the needed two-goal advantage. Matt Luzunaris, a late-season addition on loan from third-division Orlando City, started in place of Jason Garey. Forward Brian Ackley, who had been injured, was on the bench with offensive-minded reserves Austin Da Luz and Mike Palacio.
At first it looked like those changes were going to usher the RailHawks into the next round.
Luzunaris scored on a Floyd Franks assist in the 14th minute, while Tiyi Shipalane added another four minutes later to give Carolina a brief 3-2 series lead.
Tampa’s Shane Hill converted a penalty in the 40th to even the series at 3-3.
In the second half, Tampa’s Mike Ambersley scored in the 65th. The RailHawks subbed in Ackley, Palacio and Garey as they began to push forward, which opened up a Tampa counterattack goal by Luke Mulholland in the 84th.
Down 5-3 in the series with just six minutes left, Carolina’s Nick Zimmerman – the only RailHawks player to make the NASL’s Best XI – scored in the 87th minute to give his team a chance.
There were four minutes of stoppage time, but the RailHawks only threatened once.
As it turned out, missing two recently added defenders made more of an impact than the offense-heavy lineup.
An injury to right back Jordan Graye, suffered in the first leg of the series, necessitated a start from Greg Shields, who had missed nearly a month with cracked ribs. International duty for center back Henry Kalungi, who had World Cup qualifying games for Uganda, made way for Gale Agbossoumonde. The RailHawks weren’t able to hold the lead without Graye and Kalungi.
Carolina will open next season in an expanded WakeMed Soccer Stadium, and a month earlier, in late March, as the NASL schedule shifts.. Next year’s NASL playoffs will be a one-game Soccer Bowl pitting the best team in the first half of the season against the best team from the second half.
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