Whitecaps were held to a 2-2 draw at Carolina

In the second game of a five-match road spell, Vancouver Whitecaps FC (8W-3L-10D) were held to a 2-2 draw at NASL Conference rivals Carolina RailHawks (6W-4L-7D) in the USSF D-2 Pro League on Saturday evening.

In what was a pulsating clash between the top two clubs in the NASL Conference, the Whitecaps stormed out to an early two-goal lead at WakeMed Soccer Park. Martin Nash scored from the penalty spot before Philippe Davies doubled Vancouver’s advantage in Cary, North Carolina. However, the RailHawks fought their way back into the match and earned a point with first-half goals by captain Mark Schulte and midfielder Josh Gardner.

Though disappointed to lose their early advantage, Saturday’s draw keeps the Whitecaps nine points clear of second-place Carolina in the NASL Conference standings, though the RailHawks have four matches in hand on Vancouver. For Carolina, the draw was a missed opportunity for Martin Rennie’s side, as the RailHawks applied plenty of pressure on their Canadian visitors during the course of the weekend contest.

Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson made one notable change to his starting XI that appeared in Wednesday’s big win over the Impact in Montreal. Youngster Russell Teibert made his men’s team debut on Saturday night, as he replaced Blake Wagner on the left-hand side of midfield. At 17 years and 221 days, Teibert became the 10th youngest player to appear in a competitive match for the Blue and White, with the Niagara Falls, Ontario, native jumped ahead of former Canadian international Bruce Miller in the club’s all-time list. The youngest-ever player to appear for Vancouver was Guido Titotto, who at 16 years and 38 days, was a member of the 86ers during the 1987 Canadian Soccer League season.

On an overcast and humid night in Cary, North Carolina, a crowd of 2,285 were treated to an eventful first half, with thrilling action taking place at both ends in the opening minutes of the match.

In fact, the first notable event came from Vancouver’s first corner of the game on two minutes. Davies’ corner from the right found centre back Greg Janicki at the far post, who was able to redirect the ball on the Carolina goal. In the midst of trying to block the shot, Carolina’s Gregory Richardson was adjudged to have handled the ball in the RailHawks box by match referee Skye Arthur Banning, who duly awarded a Whitecaps penalty.

Nash stepped up to hit the spot kick past diving RailHawks goalkeeper Eric Reed and into the roof of the net for his third goal of the season, and second from the penalty spot. The penalty also took the Whitecaps captain into a tie for 10th in Vancouver’s career list with Kevin Hector on 104 points, with the goal taking the experienced playmaker past Oliver Heald in the process.

It was just the type of start to the match that the Whitecaps were hoping for, but their good fortune soon turned when Nash was penalized himself for handling the ball in the Vancouver box following Carolina’s first corner of the game on five minutes. Richardson’s run towards the Whitecaps goal saw Nash’s sliding challenge cause him to handle the ball, with referee Banning immediately pointing to the penalty spot, as a result. RailHawks midfielder Floyd Franks took the spot kick, but his right-footed effort slammed off the crossbar and away to safety.

It was a brief reprieve for the visitors, as Carolina continued to press forward in search of an equalizer. On 11 minutes, Whitecaps goalkeeper Jay Nolly made the first of several fine first-half saves, as he blocked away Carolina midfielder Matt Watson’s long-distance drive.

The save allowed the Whitecaps to double their lead, and in historical fashion, on the quarter-hour mark. After striker Cornelius Stewart nearly set up Teibert for a chance second earlier, Davies struck home a low right-footed shot past Reed for his first-ever men’s team goal, and a 2-0 Vancouver lead. The right-sided midfielder was left unattended in the Carolina box after receiving a well-measured pass from Luca Bellisomo, as he made no mistake from close range.

Davies’ goal seemingly had the Whitecaps in command of proceedings, but credit to Carolina, the remaining two-thirds of the opening half belonged to the RailHawks, as they put the Whitecaps under constant pressure. Fortunately for Vancouver, Nolly was in fine form, as he kept the RailHawks at bay with series of important saves from recent acquisition Allan Russell, winger Richardson, and fellow midfielder Watson.

Though his debut lasted just 45 minutes, Teibert showed some of the abilities that earned him a call-up from the Whitecaps Residency squad. On 30 minutes, the right-sided winger forced Reed into a diving save with a low strike in the Carolina box.

Teibert’s chance, unfortunately, was the last opportunity from Vancouver before the break, as the RailHawks proceeded to turn the match around in the latter stages of the half. Carolina’s first goal came on 40 minutes following a RailHawks corner. Gardner’s long-distance shot saw Nolly spill a rebound into the path of striker Russell, who was then able to cut the ball back in front of goal to Schulte. The RailHawks captain was then able to knock the ball home to make it 2-1.

The goal lifted the spirits of the home side, and on 45 minutes, Carolina levelled matters on the counter-attack. Franks’ through ball for Richardson saw him beat the Vancouver offside trap, despite strong offside appeals from the Whitecaps players. Richardson raced in on goal before laying off a pass to Gardner, who was able to slip the ball into an empty net to make it 2-2.

It was a spirited fight back by the RailHawks, who looked the better side for the majority of the first half, though Vancouver looked disappointed to have squandered a two-goal lead on the road. Both sides broke for halftime tied at 2-2.

After seeing Richardson attack his left side with regularity before the break, Thordarson immediately addressed the issue by taking off Teibert and slotting Takashi Hirano in at left fullback, with Zurab Tsiskaridze moving up to the left side of midfield.

The action that was seen on the pitch in the first half did not translate over to the second half, as both sides played a more even 45 minutes following the restart.

Searching for an important home win, Carolina had the better chances in the early stages. On 54 minutes, Franks struck a dangerous shot across the face of Nolly’s goal before Watson had two goal-bound efforts for the North Carolina outfit.

Vancouver’s attacks were not as potent after the break, with Reed able to save Stewart’s strike on the Carolina goal on 72 minutes. At the other end on 81 minutes, RailHawks centre back Matt Bobo saw a turn and shot in a good position fly wide of Nolly’s goal.

With the match still in the balance, it was the Whitecaps that made a late surge to find a winning goal. On 83 minutes, the visitors came ever so close to claiming an invaluable decider. Nash teed up a sublime right-footed shot that struck the far post before the rebound hit the legs of Vancouver striker Nizar Khalfan right in front of goal and landed into the welcoming arms of Reed.

It proved to be the last chance of the match, and although an additional two minutes of time added on were played, both sides had to settle for a share of the spoils at WakeMed Soccer Park.

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