CARY — In order to stay alive in the NASL Spring League Championship hunt, the Carolina RailHawks needed to earn a win against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at home Saturday night, and have league-leading Minnesota United FC lose at the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Unfortunately for the RailHawks, Minnesota United FC defeated Atlanta, but Carolina (4-2-2) took care of business at WakeMed Soccer Park, extending its home unbeaten streak to 21 games with a 2-0 victory.
The RailHawks opened up the scoring in the 18th minute when midfielder Jun Marques Davidson played in a ball over the top of several Tampa Bay defenders which ended up at the feet of forward Mike Grella.
Seconds later, Grella’s shot went past Rowdies goalkeeper Cody Mizell
Because of the amount of speed the RailHawks have on both sides of the field with midfielders Tiyi Shipalane and Cesar Elizondo, opponents will often times play up on those players on the wing, exposing the last line of defense.
Davidson took advantage of this when feeding the ball into Grella.
“That’s the best example you’re going to get of that. They had played us with a high line. I think that one of the great things about us especially at home is that we have so much aggression,” Grella said.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay had several chances in the first half as well, and its best opportunity came in the 24th minute when midfielder Evans Frimpong’s shot went off the left post.
Eleven minutes later, the Rowdies nearly scored once again, but RailHawks goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald robbed forward Casey Townsend of a score as he stopped his close range shot.
The game marked Fitzgerald’s third straight shutout performance, and he believes that he continues to succeed because of his ability to communicate while also reading the field.
“I think the biggest thing with me is that I pride myself on my communication. I’m putting guys in good spots. I’m more proactive than reactive. I do a lot of homework on the team beforehand,” Fitzgerald said.
Early on in the second half, Carolina looked to add on to its one goal lead when Grella was fouled within the penalty box.
Moments later, Grella stepped up to take a penalty kick in the 53rd minute, but he was denied by Mizell.
Despite the missed opportunity, the RailHawks kept pushing, and eventually added some cushion to its lead when Shipalane scored off of an assist from Elizondo in the 72nd minute.
The game was played in front of a RailHawks’ regular-season record crowd of 7,856.
Carolina will play its final game of the NASL Spring Season on the road next week at FC Edmonton.