RailHawks captain Mark Schulte (left) and fellow center back Matt Bobo
  • D.L. Anderson
  • RailHawks captain Mark Schulte (left) and fellow center back Matt Bobo

While the Carolina RailHawks will be playing their regular season opener this Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park, their opposition, AC St. Louis, will be debuting a franchise. An expansion team in the newly (re)formed North American Soccer League (NASL), playing under the U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2 Professional League umbrella for 2010, AC St. Louis arrives with a staunch fan base from a traditional soccer market. Using the barometer of today’s new media, their total of almost 14,000 Facebook fans dwarfs that of every MLS club except Seattle, Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia.

However, the squad that takes the pitch against the RailHawks Saturday night remains a work-in-progress, even by the admission of local media and manager Claude Anelka. Anelka’s name is a familiar one in the football world — he is the older brother of celebrated Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka. That said, Anelka’s managerial career consists mostly of a short and disappointing stint with Scottish side Raith Rovers in 2004.

AC St. Louis’ most acclaimed signing was veteran MLS forward and Missouri native Steve Ralston, who will also serve as the team’s assistant coach. However, off-season knee surgery will keep Ralston off the field until May or June. Three other important players — forwards Chris Salvaggione and Brad Stisser, and defender Jack Traylor — are also sidelined with injuries.

AC St. Louis most enduring catch may be when they were able to lure Francisco Filho to serve as their Director of Player Development. After a 17-year playing career, Filho spent 29 years with the French Football Federation’s academy, Clairefontaine, before taking the post of youth coach for Manchester United until retiring in 2005. Filho’s contacts have already enabled AC St. Louis to sign three Brazilian players, however St. Louis media reports that none of them have arrived to camp yet because of visa issues.

The one name familiar to Carolina fans is midfielder Luke Kreamalmeyer, who made 25 appearances and scored four goals for the RailHawks last season. [As of Thursday, one source within the RailHawks organization indicated he was not certain whether Kreamalmeyer would make the trip to North Carolina for Saturday’s match due to the impending birth of his child.]

Recently, the scoring burden has fallen on the feet of 28-year-old Bosnian footballer Elvir Kafedzic, an indoor soccer veteran who netted a penalty goal against the Kansas City Wizards in a friendly defeat last Saturday. AC St. Louis will also rely on the experience of Manuel Kante, a 23-year-old French-born Malian midfielder with experience throughout Europe, and goalkeeper Alec Dufty, a Raleigh-native and Wakefield H.S. graduate who made one appearance for the New York Red Bulls last year.

Despite AC St. Louis’ unknown quality, Carolina is not taking them for granted. “I know they’ve got great soccer people running their organization, people who have been involved in soccer at the absolute highest levels,” says Railhawks’ head coach Martin Rennie. “So, they’re going to know what they’re doing and be really excited for their first ever game. We’re going to have to play our best to beat them”

Still, says Rennie, “We have a lot to prove. We have guys who want to prove they’re a good team, plus new players coming who want to prove how good they are. So, I feel like we’re in good shape for the home opener.”

“You can never underestimate any team,” reiterates midfielder Daniel Paladini. “We’re going to take this team like they’re Montreal, Vancouver, or Puerto Rico. We not coming out saying ‘Ah, it’s a new team.’ If we beat them 3-0 that’s great; if we beat them 1-0 that’s great. But, we’re going to beat them.”

The RailHawks’ latest injury report:
– Kupono Low suffered a serious right knee injury during last Saturday’s scrimmage against Charleston that will keep him sidelined indefinitely.
– Sainey Touray will remain out of action for approximately six weeks due to the hamstring tear he suffered against UNC.
– An ankle injury suffered as a result of a hard tackle during the Duke scrimmage continues to keep Floyd Franks off the pitch. He is still a couple of weeks from being available. While he could be on the bench for the Mexican Olympic National scrimmage, Rennie expects he will be active for the May 1st match at Rochester.
– Gregory Richardson says he continues to nurse a foot injury he suffered against UNC. However, Richardson has been practicing at full speed and expects to play this Saturday.
– Rennie says defender Greg Shields, recently returned from an extended loan in Scotland, has recovered from his lingering hamstring injury and is available for Saturday’s game against AC St. Louis.