Luke DeCock

DeCock: RailHawks set bar high, clear it easily

RailHawk fans react to the goal scored by Carolina's Brian Shriver in the second half against  the Los Angeles Galaxy in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in Cary on May 29, 2013.
RailHawk fans react to the goal scored by Carolina's Brian Shriver in the second half against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in Cary on May 29, 2013.

There were empty seats this time, if only because there were more seats to fill than a year ago at WakeMed Soccer Park.

The LA Galaxy returned to face the Carolina RailHawks in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday, a year to the day after the RailHawks upset the Galaxy in the same round of the same competition in front of a similar crowd.

It wasn’t the same. It was never going to be. The first time was novel and different. Expectations were higher this time around.

Once was pretty good for the RailHawks. This was pretty close.

The Galaxy once again left its MLS stars at home and sent a patchwork squad including five of the same players, although manager Bruce Arena didn’t even bother to make the cross-country trip this time. And once again the RailHawks overwhelmed the Galaxy with a quick burst of scoring.

Last year, it was two late goals to shock the Galaxy. This year, it was two goals less than two minutes apart in the second half to take control of the game.

The RailHawks advanced with a 2-0 win, and there was nothing unique about it this time. There might not have been the same excited buzz in the stands, but that was only because people knew what to expect. The RailHawks delivered. Again. And now Chivas USA is coming back. Again.

“Maybe not for everyone, but in our locker room, certainly we expected this,” said RailHawks forward Zach Schilawski, who set up both goals. “We’re good this year. Better than we were last year.”

A year ago, their shocking comeback win against the Galaxy in front of a then-record 7,939 fans remains a moment that lingers, pleasurably and significantly, for soccer fans in the Triangle. The night had such a sense of gravitas that even the massive traffic jams in the parking lots are remembered fondly, without irritation.

It’s impossible to understate the impact that game had on the franchise and its future. Regardless of the result, merely attracting that many fans that night said something significant about the RailHawks’ place in the Triangle at a time when they were still trying to find secure footing.

Winning, and winning in the manner they did, made it a moment few who were there would ever forget – and brought another MLS team to town soon after. The RailHawks’ Open Cup dreams ended there, to Chivas in stoppage time, but that summer’s wild ride is still paying dividends for them.

“There’s definitely a very positive ripple effect from that game,” RailHawks President Curt Johnson said. “Fast-forward five, 10 years down the road, and we’ll look back and say, ‘You know what? That was one of the key moments in the early development of the RailHawks.’ That kind of raised the bar.”

The RailHawks were able to open their newly constructed north end-zone stands for that game, adding much-needed capacity, but the towering east stand has since been completed, allowing them to set a new record Wednesday of 8,121.

That construction also added four suites, two open-air party decks and additional VIP seating, all of which were sold for Wednesday’s game, contributing to a financial windfall that far surpassed last year’s Galaxy visit, even if it didn’t have that same unique feeling of momentousness.

And maybe that’s the real lasting legacy of last year’s game: The same circumstances occurred again, and it wasn’t that big of a deal how big everything was, from the crowd to the result.

Last year, the RailHawks raised the bar. This year, they cleared it. Easily.