Pablo Campos and the rest of the RailHawks hope to avoid seeing stars this Saturday vs. NSC Minnesota
  • Rob Kinnan Photography
  • Pablo Campos and the rest of the RailHawks hope to avoid seeing stars this Saturday vs. NSC Minnesota

The fault, dear readers, is not in the Stars. Yes, the Carolina RailHawks, winners of the 2011 North American Soccer League regular season title, face a one-goal deficit entering the second leg of the league playoff semifinals against the NSC Minnesota Stars, the only team in the NASL Carolina has not beaten this year.

But, a loss to the sixth-seeded Stars this Saturday evening at WakeMed Soccer Park would be especially devastating considering how Carolina arrived at this point. Merely three months ago, this RailHawks squad laid claim to the mantle of most dominant American soccer team. Their record at the midpoint of the 28-game regular season was 12-1-1, including a 10-match winning streak.

Since July 3, the RailHawks’ mediocre mark consists of five wins, eight losses and two draws, including a five-match skid currently gripping the club. Over those five straight losses—the last two being defeats at the hands of NSC Minnesota—the highest-scoring team in the NASL has netted a grand total of one goal and been outshot by a margin of 62 to 35.

The manifold reasons cited as culprits for the RailHawks’ beak-dive are now so familiar to fans they can be distilled to single-word identifiers: Rusin, Vancouver, MLS, ambition, chemistry, complacency, etc. But, the bottom line is Carolina has lost its mojo, focus and ability to put the ball into the back of the net.

As I discussed earlier this week in a podcast with Brian Quarstad of IMSoccer News, while there is much virtue in relying on a steady starting lineup, something is clearly not working now for the RailHawks. As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. It’s never a good time to panic, but needing to beat a team you haven’t beaten all season by at least two goals while also trying to snap your five-match losing streak certainly justifies a sense of urgency … and a sensible shake-up in the starting lineup.

Several weeks ago, the RailHawks’ backline was in danger of becoming a shaky sieve, the consequence of player departures, suspensions, injuries and inexperience. Manager Martin Rennie responded by signing loan deals for center backs Gareth Evans of the Wilmington Hammerheads and Tyler Lassiter of the New York Red Bulls. Although their accelerated integration into the starting rotation has seen its bumpy moments, the RailHawks have allowed only seven goals in as many matches since Evans and Lassiter paired up, an especially impressive statistic considering the wide disparity in shots allowed between Carolina and their opposition during that stretch. (By comparison, Carolina surrendered seven goals over just five matches in August, prior to Lassiter’s arrival.)

Together with all-league goalkeeper Brad Knighton, I would leave the defensive relatively unchanged: Evans, Lassiter, and Kupono Low at left back. Devon McKenney is a stronger defender than Floyd Franks and should start at right back, although Franks has filled in ably at the position throughout the season. Franks and John Krause would be available as substitutes for a defense that has been known to surrender late goals, a la last Saturday’s 90th-minute gut punch in Minnesota.

Etienne Barbara remains Carolina’s best scorer and distributor. Consequently, Minnesota’s clear strategy has been to double- and sometimes triple-team him, putting the impetus on the rest of the RailHawks to pull up the slack.

Pablo Campos has been decidedly ineffective of late, showing little in the way of touch, possession, passing or shot-making. That said, without any viable alternative at striker, it is inconceivable for Carolina to sit the second-leading goalscorer in the NASL (behind only Barbara).

The only untouchable here is Matt Watson, another all-league honoree who played his best season ever at Carolina. Otherwise, the changes start at midfield.

Pop quiz: Carolina’s last eight games began with a three-match winning streak, followed by the aforementioned five-game slide. Which RailHawk started all three wins but has only seen the starting XI for one of the losses since? Brian Farber has led off only nine games all seasons (out of 19 total appearances), but the RailHawks are a more dangerous attacking team with his sheer speed and crossing ability available to wreak havoc with defenses. Starting Farber would also free Barbara from his station on the right wing and allow him team-up with Campos in front of goal.

Question No. 2: After Barbara and Campos, who is the RailHawks’ third-leading goalscorer? Yes, Nick Zimmerman did start the regular season finale loss to NSC Minnesota. But, he did not appear last Saturday in the first semifinal leg, and leaving him off the pitch robs Carolina of one of its most potentially potent scoring threats. Placing Zimmerman on the left does consign Jonny Steele to the bench. But, while Steele is a fan fave who tied Barbara for the league-lead in assists (8), his flair often leads to losses of possession, and he is the only RailHawk non-defender to log more than 2,000 minutes this season without scoring a goal.

Finally, although Tony McManus has played quite well at holding midfield since joining the RailHawks, I would opt to return Chris Nurse to the lineup. Nurse is taller, faster and more of an offensive factor than McManus. Nurse’s passing accuracy is less reliable, but he did notch three assists this year, fourth best on the team even though Nurse ranked ninth among field players in minutes. And, the Guyanese international netted a goal for his national team during last Friday’s 2-0 win over Barbados, making him the only RailHawk anywhere to score a goal last weekend.

Barring injury considerations, these changes would leave Steele, Franks, McManus and Krause as available substitutes, all stout defenders whose fresh legs could serve Carolina well in late-game situations. Franks is also a superb PK option should the match end in a shootout.

What remains unchanged is that the RailHawks are arguably the most talented, well-coached and fit team in the NASL. Add some strategic tinkering and perhaps a fortuitous bounce of the ball, and Carolina can still end their recent nightmare and return to their once (and future?) dream season.