WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—It was an odd affair all around at WakeMed Soccer Park. A rather hastily arranged late-season friendly against Pumas Morelos, a Mexican second-division side from the city of Cuernavaca, was enlivened by the presence of Claudio Suarez, a distinguished 41-year-old retired Mexican international who has participated in three World Cups.
The Mexican opposition and Suarez’s presence in the RailHawks’ back line wasn’t enough to drum up much of a crowd on Labor Day weekend, but the Latinos sitting in the east stand were still an object lesson in engaged fandom, roaring their disapproval over every calamity that befell the visitors and stamping their feet as they urged them toward a goal in what ended up as a 3-0 defeat for the evening’s more popular side.
Josh Gardner, Cory Elenio and Ramak Safi scored for the RailHawks.
“I thought we played really well, because they’re a good team and if we had given them time and space they would have looked even better,” RailHawks head coach Martin Rennie said. “But, we closed them down well, and that’s what you’re looking for. Nobody got hurt and we got a good win. That’s two 3-0 wins in three days, so that’s encouraging.”
Most interesting from the view of RailHawks fans, however, was the opportunity to see several little-seen players, including a couple of recent signings and a teasing, exciting few minutes with the ever-enigmatic Sainey Touray.
Rennie peppered his starting XI with enough regulars to ensure a competitive posture. However, the back line featured three unusual faces: Caleb Norkus, who has been on the roster all year (and the previous three years) but has rarely featured; Devon McKenney, a regular on last year’s team who spent part of this season in USL-2; and Suarez, paired with McKenney in central defense. Only left back John Gilkerson and goalkeeper Eric Reed were on hand to represent the regular defense.
After a sluggish start, the RailHawks realized they’d little to fear from the brown-and-white-clad visitors. In the 28th minute, Richardson took the ball down the left, rolled it across the area to an onrushing Gardner, who left-footed it into the lower right corner of the net. A few minutes later, Reed saved a difficult Pumas header and immediately distributed the ball to Kabwe racing down the right flank. The Zimbabwean found Elenio, who’d gotten goal-side of his marker, and the red-haired midfielder poked the ball past a too-late Octavio Colmenares, the Pumas keeper.
But, for those of us who’d watched the RailHawks scrimmage last March against N.C. State and UNC, the real excitement was seeing Touray’s name on the substitute list. The 20-year-old Gambian was electrifying in a March 10 scrimmage against the Wolfpack, scoring twice in the first half before succumbing to a hamstring injury that ended his game after 45 minutes.
A few days later, Touray went out again against the Tar Heels in Southern Pines, and he quickly re-injured the hamstring. Ever since, for six long months, the onetime Arsenal trialist has been a spectral presence spotted by dreamy journalists before games, but one always dressed in street clothes rather than an orange RailHawks kit.
In June, the RailHawks sent him on a one-game loan to the USL-2 Harrisburg City Islanders (or rather, to Charleston, where the game was played). He scored a goal, and Triangle Offense’s hopes soared. And now, three months later, Touray took the field again, subbing for Andriy Budnyy in the 75th minute. Although there is always the possibility we were beer-goggling (non-alcoholically), we fell in love all over again. He only got a half-dozen touches, but good things happened. Long balls met his chest and fell gently to his feet as he held off defenders and found either Tiyi Shipalane or new face Nate Jafta (a 26-year-old South African training in Cary after spending the season in USL-2 Harrisburg) on the wings. And Touray’s long, thin legs churned effortlessly as he galloped onto longer balls and kept them in play.
And, in the 84th minute, Touray initiated a chain of passes that ended with Shipalane sending a dangerous ball to the goal mouth. Touray challenged Alfredo Salvidar, Pumas’ second-half substitute keeper, for the cross. The ball fell to Safi, who knocked it in for the night’s final tally.
Safi was another player who was reappearing after a long absence. After earning a contract last spring from open tryouts, Safi was sent on loan to the USL-2 Charlotte Eagles, where he continued to work on playing right back, a major change for the attack-minded Iran native. Tonight, however, Safi played attacking mid and notched a goal to show for his 13 minutes on the pitch.
“Sometimes you gotta be there to score,” Safi said. “The ball doesn’t always come to you—sometimes the defenders make mistakes and you get [to] score.”
Also appearing tonight, in a rare display, was third-string keeper Sean O’Connor, who came in for Reed in the 71st minute. O’Connor looked strong, made a couple of modest saves and preserved the clean sheet.
The RailHawks return to action at WakeMed on Saturday, Sept. 11, against the Portland Timbers.
What was Claudio Suarez doing in Cary, exactly? Was it a promotional gambit by the RailHawks, or are they interested in signing him? Suarez is 41 years old, but he’s also the most-capped outfield player in the history of all international soccer and the veteran of three World Cup squads. He is also in possession of a dangerous spot kick—he nearly scored from 20 yards in stoppage time as his curling, Rafa Marquez-like shot hit the crossbar. Furthermore, he and the rest of the jury-rigged back line kept a clean sheet, admittedly against doubtful opposition.
There’s no question about his resumé, and if he still wants to play, there is probably room for him at the D2 level. But his real value to the RailHawks would be as a bona fide Mexican hero, which perhaps could help boost Latino turnout. While the turnout tonight was modest at 1,787, there may well have been 1,000 Latinos who don’t normally attend RailHawks games. A player like Suarez might be a draw for those fans, and if he’s looking to collect a few more paychecks, the RailHawks might be the best deal he can get. A team press release that was optimistically titled, “Mexican Legend Debuts in RailHawks’ 3-0 Victory Over Pumas Morelos” contains a passage that hints at the thinking by the two parties, but also leaves no room to suppose we’ll see a follow-up to the “debut” anytime soon.
When asked about his future plans, Suarez said “I really like it here, the front office and players made me feel at home. I also like the area, the fields and the stadium so who knows, maybe next year we’ll be able to work something out.”
We spoke for the first time with the object of our infatuation, Sainey Touray, who at first seemed put off by our eagerness, appealing to a RailHawks staff member to somehow deliver him from us. But he turned out to be disarmingly direct. We learned that in addition to playing with an uncertain hamstring, Touray was playing on an empty stomach. He’s an observant Muslim, so he is fasting and praying during the current holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan ends this year on Sept. 9, two days before the RailHawks’ next game.
About his progress, Touray said:
“I think the coach has more plans for me next year. I came in [this year] with great form, but unfortunately I got a [long-term] injury and wasn’t able to play any of the games. It’s OK because we have good players and good forwards. I’ve been looking at them and try to see how I can be one of the best players on the team next season… Next season, I want to be a star on the team.”
We also had a few words with Ramak Safi, who discussed his own efforts to convert from an attacking player to a right back.
“All through college I played forward and left winger. But, coach Martin thought because I’m physical and quick I could play right back, and I’ve been playing right back ever since… I personally don’t like it because I never played it so it’s hard to get adjusted to it. But, I’ve gotten much better at it. In the beginning of the year I would get nervous. […]
“I’d like to play the same division next year. It was my first year playing defender, and I think coach Martin thinks I didn’t adjust to it well. I did well in Charlotte; they really liked me as a right back. But, I really think if I want to advance my career I need to play attacking, and that’s how I can go to the next level in MLS or Europe.”
Safi says he intends to return to his alma mater of Jacksonville University after the season, to work on his MBA while training with the soccer team and serving as a graduate assistant coach.
Touray, Safi, Jafta, McKenney, Tom Heinemann, Daniel Woolard. So many new faces. Who ARE these players, and what are they doing playing on a team that, late in the season, is fighting for an advantageous playoff spot? It’s a question worth pondering. Right now, there are 27 players listed on the RailHawks website, all but one of whom seem to be active (David Hayes is no longer with the team). Not listed are Woolard and Heinemann, who both joined the club for Friday’s victory over Crystal Palace Baltimore. Nor is McKenney, who is now on the roster, according to a team spokesman. Jafta is not on the roster. It would appear, then, that there are 29 roster players. While players at this level make less in a year than top European stars make in two or three days, it still seems like an extraordinarily munificent roster. Whether Rennie can find the right mix to carry the RailHawks to the summit of USSF-D2 is, of course, the business of the next two months.