Tobacco Road FC, the expansion National Premier Soccer League team from Durham, N.C., recently played its regular season finale, at home in front of their biggest crowd and against their local rivals, Carolina Railhawks NPSL. In an inaugural season of laudable achievements — a victory against these same rivals, a positive goal difference through nine games, a postseason berth — there was one final bout in store. What Tobacco Road didn’t know would that this fight would leave them flat on their back.
By Davis Harper
Just after 6 p.m. last Friday, Tobacco Road FC coach Cedric Burke stood before his players and delivered his pregame speech. In 45 minutes, Tobacco Road would kick off against local rivals Carolina Railhawks NPSL in the final game of the regular season, with playoff positioning and regional bragging rights on the line.
Despite the game’s billing, Burke remained calm and collected, his voice so quiet that the air vents in the adjoining bathroom briefly drowned out his speech. This outward solitude belied the fire and passion with which he approached this particular matchup. Before his pregame talk, he told me, not without a little disdain in his voice, of the more established Railhawks’ sheen of superiority, the way they “pranced around” on Tobacco Road’s turf in their bright burnt-orange uniforms. Burke made it clear that despite Tobacco Road’s victory in the only previous encounter with the Railhawks earlier this season, the Durham team still wore the underdog tag proudly around their necks.
After discussing the formation and the key players, Burke left his players with an invigorating message: “What we determine is how far we go,” Burke said. “We can end their season tonight. What would be better than ending their season? Beating them twice? Being the kings of the triangle?”
The crowd reflected the championship bout, with more than 500 eventually filling the seats — an early record for a Tobacco Road home match. The team had cut ticket prices in half for those who wore shirts of a local youth league, and the soccer community responded, curious to see what the up-and-comers in Durham had to offer.
On this day the answer was a resounding: Not much. On seven minutes, the Railhawks opened the scoring as a long shot took a couple deflections and squibbed past the keeper. It was a body blow for Tobacco Road, but the team had been there before: The Railhawks took an early lead in the first match, with TRFC eventually erasing it to win, 2-1.
Well, this was not that. In fact, the early body blow turned out to be the first in a combination of punches that would eventually lead to a first-round knockout. By the 32nd minute, the scoreboard was barely believable: Railhawks 6, Tobacco Road 0. Railhawks forward Keaton Albert scored a hat trick in 11 minutes as the visitors exploded for a half-dozen goals in 25 minutes, catching Tobacco Road in possession and ruthlessly capitalizing on defensive errors.
True, the hosts were missing Jason McCartney, the central defender from Emory, as well as Duke target striker Cam Moseley. And yes, outgoing goalie Doug Powell, long the leader of Tobacco Road who is moving after the season, was given the honorary start — his first in four games — in goal over regular starter Ben Hummel. To cap it all off, storms in the area had ruined all but one practice leading up the match.
But this was something beyond a reshuffled lineup, rained-out training sessions and a goalie coming in cold. The combination of passion and tactical acumen that has made Tobacco Road one of the surprises of the NPSL season had gone missing. Even late in the first half, when Tobacco Road fashioned a trio of chances, the attacking moves lacked verve and the shots their usual sting.
In the locker room at halftime, Burke addressed his shell-shocked players: “This isn’t about soccer anymore. This is about heart. This is someone who walks up to you and punches you in the face. Are you going to walk away, or are you going to punch them back?”
The second half brought more of the same, though a few Tobacco Road players did a better job of asserting themselves. Evan De Ycaza, the winger who had a hat trick in the team’s playoff-clinching victory the week before, scored Tobacco Road’s only goal two minutes after the break.
But it was a brief ray of hope, as the Railhawks made it 7-1 minutes later. To cap off a dreadful night, TRFC captain James Carroll scored an own goal in the 65th minute and the game would ultimately finish 8-1. Frustrations boiled over for Tobacco Road, with a rough tackle from left back Ryan Thompson in the 68th minute earning a yellow card and causing both benches to briefly clear.
On the sidelines after the match, Burke was still looking for answers. “We weren’t prepared to play, and I don’t know why that was,” Burke said after the game. “I need to figure out what went wrong. I don’t know if we were looking ahead to playoffs, but if you can’t get up for this game, I don’t know.”
The good news is that one knockout blow does not ruin a career, nor a season. Tobacco Road already qualified for the postseason, so they will have a chance to avenge this loss when they face the Myrtle Beach Mutiny in the opening round.
“At this point, the message is, ‘Look, we couldn’t be at a lower point, so we have no other option than to pick ourselves up,” Burke said. “I think tonight’s an anomaly. We have to throw it out the window. We just didn’t have it tonight. I have to give them credit. They played an unbelievable game, and we just didn’t come out to play.”
Davis Harper is a freelance writer living in Durham, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @dhillharper.