By IAN WALKER
It was a slap in the face. Plain and simple. There's really no other way to see it. Not when your opponent leaves three of its top four scorers at home for no apparent reason.
The Vancouver Whitecaps held the Carolina RailHawks to a scoreless draw on Sunday at WakeMed Soccer Park to advance to the second round of the United Soccer Leagues First Division playoffs by a 1-0 aggregate score.
While the Whitecaps will spend today resting up for the Portland Timbers, the Railhawks will be cleaning out their lockers. More difficult for the team to pack away will be the decision to rest Gregory Richardson, Joseph Kabwe and Sallieu Bundu for the first-leg match won 1-0 by Vancouver Thursday.
The trio combined for 17 goals this season, more than a third of Carolina's total offence.
The No. 2 seed RailHawks tempted fate -- and got burned.
"I thought it was strange when you come to the playoffs and then you don't play your best players," said head coach Teitur Thordarson, following Sunday's second-leg match. "But that's not our problem. That's their problem now."
Indeed. RailHawks head coach Martin Rennie called it a "tactical decision" when pressed about the whereabouts of his stars for the first-leg match. If he was a general, this was his Waterloo.
"You never know the inside of that stuff, maybe their guys couldn't get across the border or maybe they just figured they were good enough to get the result," said Whitecaps goalkeeper Jay Nolly, who has not allowed a goal in the post-season. "Swangard is a tough place to play and we knew they'd be geared up here, but we handled it well."
No one better than the Whitecaps No. 1 keeper. Nolly made a crucial save off Daniel Paladini in the 35th minute after the RailHawks were awarded a questionable penalty kick for Lyle Martin's tackle on Richardson in the box.
"I knew [Paladini] likes to go to my right -- our coaching staff did a good job scouting -- and from the way he was lined up, that's which way it looked like he was going to go," said Nolly, who was named the Whitecaps' most valuable player this season. "So I ran as hard as I could to that side and it hit me in the shoulder. I just wanted to get as big as I could and get my body behind it. The last thing I wanted to do was give the rebound right back to him for an easy tap-in."
The Whitecaps managed a couple of quality chances over the course of the game, with Kenold Versailles's shot off the corner post in 26th minute the team's best. Versailles replaced Gordon Chin in the Whitecaps' starting 11 after the veteran suffered an MCL injury in the first leg and didn't make the trip east.
But it was Vancouver's defence and depth that paved the way to victory. The RailHawks controlled the possession for most of the game, but the Whitecaps held tough on a hot and humid night in Cary, N.C. Vancouver also had the luxury of bringing Charles Gbeke -- the league's top scorer -- in off the bench as well as the added dimension of speed that striker Randy Edwini-Bonsu and midfielder Justin Moose provided as second-half substitutes.
"No doubt, that helped," said Thordarson. "This is how we had hoped it would be in the regular season, but injuries played a factor."
The Whitecaps open their two-game total-score semifinal
series with the Timbers on Thursday at Swangard Stadium.
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