No more wondering about roster additions. No more pining for boffo friendlies. And no more ice storms cancelling preseason scrimmages. Ready or not, the Carolina RailHawks open their 2014 season this weekend.
The RailHawks travel to Indianapolis this Saturday to kick off their 2014 North American Soccer League (NASL) regular season. This year, a nine-game spring season will determine one berth in the newly minted four-team postseason playoffs. The RailHawks certainly face an uphill climb as one of the five NASL teams with only four homes games in the spring, one of three teams that both open and close the spring season on the road, and the only U.S.-based NASL team required to travel to both Edmonton and Ottawa for away matches.
The RailHawks also played a lackluster array of preseason opponents relative to 2013. Last year, Carolina enjoyed a protracted, robust preseason that included friendlies against Pumas UNAM of Liga MX, the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer (MLS), no fewer than four USL Pro teams and sundry area college programs. This year, the RailHawks scrimmaged various colleges teams and only one professional club, the Charleston Battery last week.
According to RailHawks President Curt Johnson, the variation in Carolina’s preseason schedule had more to do with climate and circumstances than a lack of adequate resources.
“We worked really, really hard to get Puebla [of Liga MX] scheduled in March, but their schedule is too full. We looked at a lot of different MLS opportunities, but the financial model didn’t work. In hindsight, with the weather we’ve had, I’m glad we didn’t have a number of marquee exhibitions games because, with those games, if you have a series of bad weather it’s very difficult for those games to be financially successful. So, it could be a blessing in disguise.
“You’ve got to be really purposeful in your financial model and not deviate from it because you could lose your absolute shirt on these exhibition games.”
Nevertheless, the RailHawks have planned a variety of events and amenities around home matches this season, starting with the home opener against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, which will also serve as Carolina’s annual Community Shield match. And, Johnson says fans should expect events before and during the league’s midseason break in advance of the fall season.
“What you’ll probably find is that if we bring this topic back up in August, you’ll find that our early July will be a lot busier than other teams,” Johnson says. “We’re very likely going to have one or two exhibition games at that point of the year.”
However, one area where there’s a clear disparity of resources is player budget. The free-spending ways of four of the RailHawks’ league competitors cornered large segments of the offseason player acquisition market.
“We’re playing a different [payroll] game than the Cosmos,” Johnson admits. “We’re playing a different game than Minnesota United. We’re playing a different game than Tampa. We’re playing a different game than San Antonio. That’s 40 percent of the league, but it’s not everybody.”
Nevertheless, RailHawks manager Colin Clarke, entering his third season in Cary, spent the offseason scouring for talent in England, Costa Rica, and the MLS and NASL combines. Even with the loss of several key contributors from last season, the ever-confident Clarke believes the RailHawks have assembled a team capable of competing for the league crown.
“It’ll be a different team with a different look,” Clarke says. “But at the end of the day you hope that the team is better and not just individuals.
“One player doesn’t make a team. We have to instill in our players here that it’s the sum of all those parts that’s going to put ourselves in a position to win a championship.”
From conversations with coaches, players and this author’s vantage point throughout preseason scrimmages, here’s my overview of the 2014 Carolina RailHawks (as currently constituted):
Notable returnees: Tiyi Shipalane; Enzo Martinez; César Elizondo; Nick Millington
Notable additions: Jun Marques Davidson; Nick Zimmerman (returning from season-long injury); Braian Cyrino; Nazmi Albadawi
Notable departures: Austin da Luz; Bréiner Ortiz
Notwithstanding any financial obstacles, the RailHawks’ dynamic midfield is one of the best in the NASL. Ty Shipalane, César Elizondo and Enzo Martinez give Carolina a trio of speedy attackers to fill a rotating diamond formation utilized throughout the preseason. Meanwhile, Jun Marques Davidson returns to Carolina (where he played the 2010 season) after spending the last two years as a regular starter with the Whitecaps in MLS. Davidson and the ever-improving Nick Millington anchor the holding midfield positions, with Davidson a steady distributing presence and Millington a spry defender who is also starting to push forward on occasion (he scored two goals in the team’s final preseason scrimmage).
The X-factor is Nick Zimmerman, who scored 15 goals for Carolina in 2012, second-best in the NASL. Zimmerman missed all of 2013 after suffering a knee injury during preseason while trialing for an MLS team. After a year of rehab, Zimmerman is back and training full-speed with the RailHawks. However, he only appeared for portions of a couple of scrimmages and, according to Clarke, is not yet part of the starting rotation.
“He’s getting stronger,” Clarke explains. “He’s probably that last 10 percent of fitness away from being back where he wants to be.”
A flock of young RailHawks fill the midfield depth positions, including Braian Cyrino, a skilled 19-year-old Argentinian discovered at the NASL Combine, and Nazmi Albadawi, a 22-year-old NC State and RailHawks U23 attacker.
Notable returnees: Zack Schilawski
Notable additions: Aaron King; Daniel Jackson; Dmytro Kryvyy
Notable departures: Brian Shriver; Nicholas Addlery; Brian Ackley
Brian Shriver’s NASL Golden Boot goal tally last year for the RailHawks ably compensated for a distinct lack of punch at the striker position. Now, Shriver has left for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Clarke realizes there’s a huge scoring void left in his wake.
“If you had sat down here last year and we said Brian Shriver is going to score 15 goals, you might not have believed us,” Clarke says. “But he did. So, do I know where [the goals] are coming from? I think it’s going to be more of a mix than just one player.”
The only returning forward from last year is Zack Schilawski, who Clarke hopes will embrace his heightened role and finally regain the form that made him a first-round MLS SuperDraft prospect in 2010.
Joining Schilawski will be Aaron King, a former NC State standout who briefly appeared with the RailHawks in 2009 before spending the ensuing years with FC Tampa Bay, Phoenix FC and FC Haka in the Finnish second division. Dmytro Kryvyy is a Ukrainian striker who impressed during training camp.
But among of the most impressive newcomers is Daniel Jackson, a 6’1” forward out of Coker College, SC who was drafted by Real Salt Lake in the 4th round of last January’s MLS SuperDraft. After failing to latch onto an MLS team, Jackson came to RailHawks, where his height, foot skills and surprising pace turned heads. Indeed, when Shipalane was asked which newcomers have impressed him the most during training camp, the first name he mentioned was “D.J.”
Notable returnees: Kupono Low; Austen King
Notable additions: Connor Tobin; Daniel Scott; Toni Uriah Bentick; Jordan Burt; Toni Ståhl (added as of 4-19-2014)
Notable departures: Julius James; Paul Hamilton; Jordan Graye; Kevin Rutkiewicz
The area with the most offseason upheaval was the defense. Three-quarters of the RailHawks’ starting back line from last season is gone. The only returning starter is the ageless Kupono Low, now entering his eighth year in Carolina as the lone RailHawk remaining from the team’s 2007 inaugural season.
However, in contrast to other departures, Clarke contends those defenders were not “lost” but rather shown the door.
“They weren’t good enough,” Clarke says. “We didn’t lose them. We didn’t want them back. Defenders gotta defend, and there was too much other stuff going on that wasn’t good for a team mentality.”
In their place arrives a pair of new starting center backs. Connor Tobin was a regular for Minnesota the last two seasons before coming to Carolina for 2014. He is paired with Daniel Scott, who spent the last three years as an on-again, off-again contributor for the Rowdies. UPDATE: And prior to the April 19 home opener, Carolina added Toni Ståhl, a former NASL Best XI defender for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
“We’ve got kids back there [now] … who are 110 percent honest defenders,” Clarke declares.
With the semi-retirement of Jordan Graye—a defender Clarke does wish was still around—the RailHawks’ right back position is unresolved. It appeared that Daniel Welsh, a 23-year-old Scottish defender, would fill the position, but Welsh returned to school. The current presumptive starter is Jordan Burt, a converted midfielder and four-year starter at Butler University. A tall, wiry presence at full back, Burt has impressed with his tracking speed and passing accuracy.
Providing cover at center and full back are Austen King, beginning his third year with Carolina and Uriah Bentick, a tall, strong and skilled defender who spent last season with the Wilmington Hammerheads and impressed the RailHawks’ coaching staff during training camp.
Notable addition: Scott Goodwin
Notable departure: Tim Murray
Akira Fitzgerald begins his second season as the undisputed starting goalkeeper for the RailHawks, as well as a perennial fan favorite. Indeed, Fitzgerald led all NASL goalkeepers in saves last year and is a capable defensive organizer.
His backup is Scott Goodwin, former starting goalkeeper for the UNC Tar Heels during their 2011 NCAA Men’s National Championship season. At UNC, Goodwin amassed 41 career shutouts, 7,103 minutes played, and a 0.54 goals-against-average, all program career records. After graduating from UNC in 2012, Goodwin spent last year in Iceland with IF Hottur.
There’s one more indispensable piece to the RailHawks’ roster: their 12th man.
“It’s going to be a fun ride. It always is,” Clarke says. “We’ll put a team on the field that they’ll be proud of, they’ll want to support and they’ll want to get behind. No matter how good the team is, without our supporters we’re only half as good. We need them.”