There will be fireworks one way or another at WakeMed Soccer Park on Saturday, either to celebrate a first-half NASL title for the Carolina RailHawks or as a consolation prize for fans in defeat.
The RailHawks host the Atlanta Silverbacks with a chance to clinch that championship, which comes with the right to host the season-ending Soccer Bowl championship game in November.
The RailHawks are in first place, the Silverbacks second. Although both teams have one more game left before the summer break, the RailHawks can settle things with a win Saturday.
“It’s a huge game, the only game now that really matters,” said Brian Shriver, who played at North Carolina and is the NASL’s leading scorer with eight goals. “It comes down to Saturday night, pretty much the championship game for us and for them.”
If there wasn’t enough pressure already, RailHawks coach Colin Clarke pushed all his chips into the center of the table when he rested several of his starters in Wednesday night’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal at Real Salt Lake. Rather than put his regular lineup through 90 minutes at altitude against an MLS opponent, some of the RailHawks’ best players watched from the bench as their team was unable to generate much of an offensive attack and Real Salt Lake cruised to an easy 3-0 win.
“It was tough,” Shriver said. “It was a game you obviously want to play in, play the full 90, contribute where you can. But obviously there is a bigger picture and we knew that. That still doesn’t make it any easier – especially in that atmosphere, playing against that team, an extremely good team. And they showed it.”
The U.S. Open Cup may be flashy, but as a goal it’s secondary to winning the league. The chance to host the championship game is a far bigger prize than the chance to host a U.S. Open Cup semifinal, with no guarantee the RailHawks’ full-strength lineup could beat a third MLS team – on the road after traveling across the country – anyway.
(Financially, hosting Soccer Bowl would probably be more lucrative for the RailHawks than a U.S. Open Cup semifinal would have been, not that such matters figured into Clarke’s calculations.)
“At the start of the season, this was our goal, our league,” Clarke said. “It always has been. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what we get paid for. Open Cup is a wonderful run, but it’s gone now. This team, this club, this community, they’re crying out for a championship. We have a chance to do that tomorrow, but it’s not going to be easy.”
That the RailHawks are in this position at all is impressive. They have been without three key players – forward Nick Addlery and midfielders Nick Zimmerman and Breiner Ortiz – all season because of injuries, and a handful of other players are out now, including midfielder Tiyi Shipalane and defender Julius James, both of whom have been essential to the team’s success this season.
Yet they have turned any number of losses and draws into wins this season with impossibly late goals – Shriver scored twice in the final four minutes last Saturday to turn what looked like a 2-1 loss into a 3-2 win against Minnesota – and complemented their league success with a cup run that included dramatic home wins against MLS teams the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA.
“We started out wanting to better our Open Cup run from last year,” Shriver said. “We did that. With regard to the season, we wanted to be in contention coming into the last few games and we’ve given ourselves all the opportunity to win it. It’s all in our hands. That’s what we wanted.”