Whatever mysterious mojo the Carolina RailHawks have been able to call upon against MLS teams in the U.S. Open Cup, making for some surprisingly entertaining summers, looked like it was there Wednesday night.
It took only nine minutes for the RailHawks to get on the board, striking quickly and efficiently, before many in the crowd had settled into their seats. This has become more expected than unexpected in recent years, thanks to a history of improbable upsets, perhaps none more unlikely than the win against the L.A. Galaxy two weeks ago, Carolina’s third in the past three seasons.
Before that game, Landon Donovan said he was “sick of losing to Carolina” and even the American superstar’s appearance as a second-half substitute couldn’t get the Galaxy past the RailHawks. Again.
Wins against the Galaxy and, earlier, Chivas USA, got the RailHawks this far, and Zack Schilawski’s early goal looked like it might augur more of the same, with a chance to host the Philadelphia Union in the semifinals hanging in the balance.
“I don’t think that thought went through anybody’s mind,” RailHawks midfielder Enzo Martinez said, “but it kind of seemed like that out there.”
That was it for the RailHawks, though. It was 3-2 Dallas at the half, and if the mojo were still out there, Cesar Elizondo would have been able to connect with a ball bouncing along the goal line at the hour mark. It bounced behind him. The RailHawks were bounced out, 5-2 after two late goals.
Only once in their history have the RailHawks made it past this point – in 2007, their inaugural season, when they lost to the New England Revolution – despite a 6-5 record against MLS opponents.
That’s what makes this particular competition so much fun. Teams at the RailHawks’ level probably shouldn’t have a chance against MLS opponents, but the RailHawks have never been daunted.
Typically, the RailHawks place more emphasis on this competition than do their MLS opponents, who tend to view it as an imposition on an already crowded schedule, scrimmages against the junior varsity. (In 2013, faced with a schedule crunch of their own, the RailHawks sent a patchwork squad to Utah to face Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals, falling 3-0. It works both ways.)
Put it together, and the RailHawks are typically the more motivated team, usually with home-field advantage, often against an opponent that has to travel from California thanks to a quirk in the way teams are grouped in the early rounds. It has been a recipe for cup success.
This summer has been a little different. The Galaxy came loaded for bear and FC Dallas wasn’t messing around either. Not that it was ever easy before – a 2012 home loss to Chivas USA was due in part to the contributions of Colombian star Juan Pablo Angel – but it has been particularly challenging this time around.
The RailHawks held off the Galaxy to win in overtime thanks to the goalkeeping heroics of backup Scott Goodwin, but they couldn’t handle Dallas’ speed, particularly the electric Fabian Castillo, who scored what would turn out to be the game-winner just before halftime by blowing through the heart of the Carolina defense.
That was it for the RailHawks’ hopes of hosting a semifinal as well as their 23-match home unbeaten streak and another summer of U.S. Open Cup dreams, although not without another memorable win against the Galaxy and an entertaining, if frustrating, loss Wednesday.