Colin Clarke makes a point during a preseason practice.

If only the Carolina RailHawks were flying as high as their head coach recently. After helming his team in Minnesota during last Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Stars FC, Colin Clarke took a quick detour west to Portland, where he watched PSA Elite’s win over the Portland Timbers U-23s Tuesday night in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup before catching a red-eye back to Raleigh. The purpose of Clarke’s midweek sojourn was scouting the RailHawks’ debut opponent in Open Cup competition, which takes place next Tuesday, May 22 at WakeMed Soccer Park.

However, Carolina must first contend with the small matter of the top team in the NASL coming to town this Saturday. The Puerto Rico Islanders (has anyone mentioned that Clarke used to coach them?) are perched atop the league table with a 5-1-1 record. The Islanders defeated the RailHawks 3-1 a month ago in Puerto Rico, and PRI hosted Atlanta Wednesday evening and torched the Silverbacks 3-0.

Meanwhile, the winless RailHawks are mired at the bottom of the standings along with the Silverbacks. Buoyed by several lineups changes and roster additions, Carolina played its best game in weeks last weekend…and still lost to the Stars. If they fail to defeat the Islanders this Saturday, the RailHawks will tie the club record of nine consecutive games without a victory.

Saturday is also the first of at least four straight home matches for the RailHawks. After the PSA Elite game next Tuesday, Carolina hosts Puerto Rico again on June 2 and Minnesota on June 9. If Carolina eliminates PSA Elite, a third round Open Cup match against a little west coast club squad named the L.A. Galaxy will be scheduled for May 29, also at WakeMed Park.

While Clarke recognizes the missteps his team has made thus far, he maintains confidence in his players and their ability to turn things around.

“Saturday’s important,” says Clarke, acknowledging the obvious. “It’s a home game against Puerto Rico, [and] they’re top of the league. For us to get three points would be big. It would move us up the league and get us within touching distance of them, because we play them again two weeks later.”

Clarke made three notable lineup alterations for the Minnesota match. Forward Jason Garey was absent due to a back injury, although Clarke says he will be available this Saturday.

As for the other two, Clarke says, “I decided to make some changes.” The first was a no-brainer. Clarke left struggling center back John Krause not only out of the starting XI but back in Cary to make way for the finally-healthy Gale Agbossoumonde. “Boss” responded with a terrific match in his first competitive action in roughly seven months, clogging up the middle with a deft mix of size, strength and skill.

“Gale’s a very good player,” Clarke observes. “There’s been a lot of talk about him and the potential he’s got. He’s someone we’re excited to have and we’re looking forward to him continue to improve, and I know in a year or two’s time we’ll all be watching him play somewhere else at a much higher level and be very thankful that we had him here and were able to enjoy him while he was here.”

Still, while the RailHawks’ defensive woes are widely known, Clarke sees room for improvement in all areas of the pitch.

“We giving up too many goals,” says Clarke, again without a hint of sarcasm. “You can’t look at it any other way. We know we have to get better defensively, But, we also have to be ruthless on the other side of the field. If we’re scoring goals, it makes everyone’s defensive job a little easier.”

Although Clarke’s sentiment is true, it does not account for the four goals scored against Atlanta and three goals earned versus Fort Lauderdale, both home matches that somehow resulted in duel draws.

Also not making the trip to Minnesota was midfielder Mike Palacio. In his place, Ty Shipalane received his first start of the season before being spelled by Austin Da Luz for the last 22 minutes of the game. Da Luz netted Carolina’s lone goal in full-time stoppage.

Clarke would not elaborate about details regarding Palacio’s current mindset. But, the manager is clear about the midfielder’s value to the team.

“Michael’s still a big and very important part of this football club,” Clarke says. “He didn’t get the start in Minnesota, and now he’s got to react in a positive way to that to get back into the team. In midfield we’ve got a very, very good group of players. Obviously they can’t all be on the field together, so it was just my decision to make a change and look at something else.”

As for Da Luz, Clarke is clearly becoming more enamored with the speedy and skilled former Wake Forest standout and MLS reservist.

“Austin obviously came in a little bit later than everyone else,” Clarke explains. “Now he’s starting to feel comfortable within the group and what I’m looking for and the team’s looking for. [Against Minnesota] I thought Austin came on and did a good job. Obviously he scored the goal, but he was very good in possession and keeping the ball and making things happen. You’ll probably see a lot more of Austin Da Luz in the next few weeks.”

That increased playing time could come rather soon. Not only does Carolina have two games in four days, but Chris Nurse’s status for Saturday’s match is questionable. According to Clarke, Nurse is having an eye issue on the heels of a recent blow to the head and will consult a doctor regarding on Friday.

On Friday, the RailHawk officially announced the signings of defender Jamie Finch and midfielder Nick Millington. Finch played for the University of Washington before being drafted by the Columbus Crew in this year’s MLS Supplemental Draft. Millington, who has been training with Carolina since preseason, is a Raleigh native who is a former member of the Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) and played collegiately at Wake Forest.

Meanwhile, the Islanders are currently without the services of striker Nick Addlery, who is out for a few weeks with a foot injury. However, the lethal combination of Jonathan Faña, David Foley and Hector Ramos still make Puerto Rico the top scoring side in the league by a wide margin.

Clarke hopes to reverse both teams’ fortunes Saturday night.

“We haven’t gotten a win yet,” Clarke acknowledges. “We’ve only played three games at home and five on the road, so these next games at home, particularly in the league are very, very important.”

Kickoff between the RailHawks and Islanders is 7 p.m. this Saturday, May 19 at WakeMed Soccer Park.