BIRTH OF A CLUB: THE TURNING POINT

There are moments in the history of any sports team that stick in the memory. Whether there’s forty years or a fortnight between the present moment and that moment, the small seconds on which fortunes are made have a permanent deposit box in the memory bank. For the founders and fans of Tobacco Road FC, the National Premier Soccer League’s newest franchise, that moment may just have arrived.

Four frustrating matches, three long weeks and a number of unfortunately timed injuries into the NPSL’s brief summer campaign, the sun shone on Tobacco Road at the perfect time. The club from Durham, N.C., picked up its first-ever win, coming from behind to vanquish their new and future local rival, Carolina Railhawks NPSL, 2-1, down the road in Raleigh.

The clouds parted for Tobacco Road, both metaphorically and literally. By the 4:30 pm kickoff, the temperature in Raleigh hovered above 90 degrees, with zero cloud cover and an oppressive, pre-thunderstorm humidity. It was the type that required official water breaks in each half, and more unofficial ones whenever there was a stoppage in play. The elements gave one reporter the feeling he was being suffocated by a pair of sweaty hands.

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Photo Courtesty of Luis Trinh Nava – Carolina RailHawks

In a season marked by a series of firsts, the chance to set the tone in what Tobacco Road is hoping will become a local derby was perhaps the most important.The Railhawks are an established franchise best known for its NASL team, but it has also put down deep roots in the area, developing an impressive academy system. Their U-23 team, which this year branded as Carolina Railhawks NPSL, won the USASA U-23 National Championship in both 2011 and 2013. Many on the Tobacco Road roster have history with the Railhawks, either coming through their youth system or trialling with the senior teams. A few were even cut by Saturday’s opponents this preseason.

“These guys are the cream of the crop in the area, and a lot of guys who come through their NPSL team are expected to move onto the NASL level,” Tobacco Road co-founder Seth Kaplan told me during the match, a palpable excitement in his voice at the chance to test themselves against the best in the area.  

For the majority of the first half, Tobacco Road failed this test. Without Sonny Mukungu, their central defensive anchor who suffered a bone contusion in his foot during a collision in practice, Tobacco Road struggled to keep shape and formation. Despite vocal fan support from a pocket of Tobacco Road faithful in a crowd of maybe 200, the team struggled to deal with some sharp Railhawks movement and early on, frustrations boiled over with the heat. Ten minutes in, after yet another soft pass, the Railhawks midfielder Nils Bruening pounced, gathering the ball and finding Clayton Sparks in the middle for an easy finish.

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Photo courtesy of Luis Trinh Nava – Carolina RailHawks

Nobody could argue the goal hadn’t been coming. But despite spending much of the first half in their own 18-yard box, Tobacco Road escaped with only a one-goal deficit. Kaplan was apoplectic in the stands, telling me that parts of the half were the worst the team has played all season. In the locker room, though, fellow co-founder and head coach Cedric Burke remained positive.

“I told the guys, ‘Look, we didn’t play well but we’re only down 1-0,’” Burke said. “‘Less talk, more action. It’s all about heart. It’s not an option for us to lose this game. Let’s just make it happen. Do your job, win your 50-50 battles and if you’re an offensive player, your job is to score goals.’”

In the second half, Burke made some tactical adjustments that paid immediate dividends. Congolese attacker Arnold Hamza, who had started in the center, was pushed out wide left. Four minutes after the restart, he used his pace to blow by his defender and play a give-and-go with towering striker Cam Moseley, who was cut by the Railhawks this preseason. Hamza then touched it across goal where Evan De Ycaza, another Railhawks cut, was on hand for the straightforward finish.

Before the ball was back in the center circle and the celebrations had ceased, Burke was already barking at his players: “Let’s go now! Focus. Next five minutes. Let’s get another one!”

While his shouts might seem a little impatient, there was good reason to stay on top of his players. Following three draws that could have just as easily been victories, including two in which the opposition equalized in second half stoppage time, Burke has effectively outlawed ties in recent practices. When intrasquad scrimmages ended in a draw, Burke stops the drills and makes everyone do calisthenics — usually a punishment reserved for the losers — then implores the sides to continue playing until a winner is found.

“We needed to change that mentality, to show them that a tie is not acceptable,” Burke told me. “That was what we trained all week. If and when we score, we raise our level in the next five minutes. Every practice, whenever a team scores, I tell them to step it up and score another one. It’s teaching to close teams out, to keep momentum up, and never to take the foot off the gas.”

His team responded, owning much of the second half. The Railhawks showed flashes of brilliance, as would be expected of a team stacked with local D1 standouts, some of whom have played together for years at the youth level. But Tobacco Road, perhaps buoyed by their underdog status, seemed the more likely winners.

Hamza torched the left-wing, peppering Railhawks goalie William Pulisic with two stinging shots. His replacement, Ibrahim Diouf, picked up where he left off. On 88 minutes, Tobacco Road finally profited. Captain James Carroll, whom Burke called his “warrior” after he played the final 60 minutes of the match with a sprained ankle, lofted a pass over the defense to an on-running Moseley, who settled and slotted past Pulisic for 2-1.

Still, it wasn’t over, with two minutes plus stoppages. Tobacco Road had been here before, and each time fell short, letting in four of their seven goals conceded in first- or second-half stoppage time. This time, they held strong as the supporters held their breath. When the final whistle sounded, the sense of relief was palpable both on the field and off.

Asked for one word to describe how the win felt, Kaplan went with relief. “A lot of relief. All season, since that first heartbreaker against Myrtle Beach, we’ve been wondering when it would come. Even in this match, you’re wondering if we’ll have to continue to wait for our moment.”

Photo courtesy of Luis Trinh Nava – Carolina RailHawks
Photo courtesy of Luis Trinh Nava – Carolina RailHawks

Moseley, the man who created that moment, was particularly impressive. The 6-foot-4 junior from Duke, who joined the team after the start of the season, displayed excellent link-up play and distribution, as well as a knack for getting in behind the defense. Of course, none of that matters without the ability to score, which has been an issue for Tobacco Road. Prior to the Railhawks match, the team had scored only two non-penalty goals.

“Scoring has been our biggest weakness,” Burke told me over lunch before Saturday’s practice. “I’ve made it an open competition in practice for those forward roles, and Cam has really stepped up. I couldn’t be more proud of the kid. That was a clinical finish.”

After the match, Burke summed up what the win meant to him and the rest of the franchise.

“It is incredibly gratifying,” Burke said. “Everything was focused on getting a result in this match. We wanted to create that rivalry, and make an immediate statement in terms of who the best NPSL team in the Triangle is, to help us with confidence the rest of the season, and with recruitment going forward. We did that.”