Long after the game ended, there was still a long line of fans along the fence getting autographs from the Chivas USA players, taking pictures with them and generally basking in their proximity to the MLS stars like Juan Pablo Angel and Juan Agudelo.
For the past two Tuesdays, the visitors have been the attraction at WakeMed Soccer Park: First the Los Angeles Galaxy, then Chivas. The Carolina RailHawks were supposed to play the part of the Washington Generals in these U.S. Open Cup games, but never got that message.
They outplayed the Galaxy in the third round, coming from behind to win with every seat sold, before losing a heart-breaker Tuesday night to Chivas in the fourth round. Chivas converted a penalty kick three minutes into stoppage time for a 2-1 win after the RailHawks tied the score in the 79th minute.
In front of 7,117 Tuesday, after drawing 7,939 last week against the Galaxy, the RailHawks continued to make an impression on and off the field.
“Opportunity knocked at the door,” RailHawks president Curt Johnson said. “We did a good job. Not fully, because we could have won this game and we could be advancing, but it’s a success story for us.”
The end was particularly galling, because the clear-cut penalty for a Gale Agbossoumonde handball came right after referee Ted Unkel missed what appeared to be a clear-cut foul on Zach Schilawski at midfield. He wasn’t watching, looked to the fourth official for guidance and then shrugged his shoulders.
“Everybody else saw it,” RailHawks coach Colin Clarke said. “The referee was garbage tonight. I thought he gave us nothing, of the 50-50 decisions. He looked after them.”
When the moment came, Angel calmly placed the ball in the lower left corner of the net. RailHawks goalie Ray Burse, who made several nice saves on Angel and Juan Agudelo to keep the RailHawks in the game, had no chance.
The RailHawks did, though. They had every chance to win the game. Despite opening the NASL season on an epic winless streak, they have been playing really nice soccer for weeks now.
“We’re confident,” Schilawski said. “Maybe that sounds crazy to say because the season didn’t get started off the way we wanted it to, but we have the quality and the depth on our team that we’re in any game.”
Since Austin Da Luz was integrated into the midfield, bringing with him the ability to split the defense with pinpoint passing, and center back Agbossoumonde got healthy, stabilizing a previously shaky back line, the RailHawks have started playing with entertaining, attacking intent.
It’s been good enough to start winning NASL games, most recently on Saturday against first-place Puerto Rico, and good enough to give two MLS teams everything they could handle, even in their third game in eight days.
The past few weeks have shown that this team is good enough to dominate at the NASL level and probably only a player or two away from being truly competitive at the MLS level – maybe not on an every-night basis, but on an any-given-night basis.
“We could beat any MLS team, in my opinion,” Tuesday goal-scorer Mike Palacio said.
Clarke used his postgame news conference to make a plea to all the fans who came out to see the MLS opponents to come back for the RailHawks this Saturday: “This is the best team around here, for miles. Come back and enjoy it.”
It was probably unnecessary: The way the RailHawks have played lately, especially these past two Tuesdays in front of a total of more than 15,000 fans, is the best sales pitch of all.