Team president Curt Johnson welcomes Colin Clarke as head coach of the Carolina RailHawks
  • Neil Morris
  • Team president Curt Johnson welcomes Colin Clarke as head coach of the Carolina RailHawks

WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY — The site of the press conference announcing Colin Clarke as the Carolina RailHawks’ new manager took place in one of the hospitality suites at WakeMed Soccer Park, affording attendees a view of bulldozers beyond the east grandstand already busily readying expansion of the park’s facilities.

This preview of the stadium’s future was mirrored across the way by the introduction of the newest chapter in the RailHawks’ history. The 49-year-old Clarke comes to Carolina following the departure of Martin Rennie to become head coach of Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps. Clarke spent five celebrated seasons managing the Puerto Rico Islanders, leading them to the 2008 USL-1 regular season championship and the 2010 USSF D-2 Pro League Championship. The Islanders also reached the semifinals of the 2008-2009 CONCACAF Champions League. Clarke served as head coach of the Puerto Rico national team from 2008-2011 and managed FC Dallas of Major League Soccer from 2003-2006.

Prior to coaching, Clarke enjoyed a playing career that included time spent in England’s First Division with Southampton, Queens Park Rangers and Portsmouth. He earned 38 caps for the Northern Ireland National Team, recording a goal in the 1986 World Cup and finishing his career as the all-time leading goal scorer for Northern Ireland.

According to Clarke, his contract with the RailHawks is a two-year deal, with the club retaining an option to extend for a third. Throughout his introduction to the local media, Clarke cited his relationship with RailHawks’ president Curt Johnson as a large reason why he chose to come to Carolina, a journey that began in 1995 when Clarke first met Johnson, then general manager of the Richmond Kickers, while vacationing in Greece. Johnson would go on to hire Clarke in 1998 to manage the Kickers, his first head coaching gig.

“The biggest part of me coming here is [Curt Johnson],” said Clarke. “I know how much this job means to him. He asked me to come here. I had a job — I was somewhere that still wanted me to be there, but I chose to come here instead.”

Still, it is strange that Clarke would leave his legacy in Puerto Rico and its perennial, high-profile regional competitions for a seemingly lateral move to the RailHawks. IMS Soccer News speculated last week about some of the reasons why Clarke was making this jump. When asked about this during today’s press conference, Clarke remained equivocal.

“I needed a change for personal and professional reasons,” Clarke explained. “I just think it was time for a change. I liked what Curt was selling and what is going on [with the RailHawks]. I wanted to get back to the States — my wife’s family is from Richmond, so that played into it as well. I like to win, and I think there’s a great opportunity to win a championship with this team. So, a lot of different little reasons but not one specific. I had a great time in Puerto Rico — I can’t talk highly enough about that organization. But, I just thought it was time to move.”

One of the first challenges facing Clarke — which he mentioned several times — is rebuilding a complete player roster. At present, only two players are under contract with the RailHawks: defender Cory Miller and backup goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald. Several others, included club mainstay Matt Watson, have apparently moved on to explore opportunities elsewhere — Johnson believes that Watson, a NASL All-League performer last season, has a “great chance” at making a MLS roster. The team declined to pick-up options on several players, including Kithson Bain, the Grenadan national who missed most of last season with a serious knee injury, who Johnson said the club would like to resign after assessing his current fitness. And, according to Johnson, there are a number of players from last season that the team will move ink to new contracts, including last season’s team captain Kupono Low, who attended Tuesday’s press conference.

“Inevitably, the good players are probably going to move on,” observed Clarke. “But, now we have to replace them, and it’s exciting to go out and try to find some new young talent who can come here and develop and then hopefully themselves move on to bigger and better things.”

Clarke brought up the longstanding dearth of a Hispanic presence on the RailHawks roster, remarking, “I’ve got some stuff lined up that’s going to happen pretty quickly to hopefully rectify that.” He also spoke about his outlook on style of play, having been in a top-ranked player in England but coaching the last five seasons in the Caribbean culture.

“Everybody wants to play like Barcelona or Spain, but you don’t always have those pieces,” said Clarke. “You want to get as close to it as possible because it’s pleasing to the eye and everybody enjoys that. But at the end of the day you have to get results and win games. One of the first things an old coach of mine said was ‘the ball is round so it’s got to be played on the ground.’ Will we go direct at times? Yes, of course — different games dictate different things. We all want to see the ball passed around and score plenty of goals, but it’s not that easy. It’s what we aspire to…but I have to find pieces that fit the puzzle.”

Johnson states that 2012 season ticket sales already exceed last season’s numbers. As the club continues to build on its past, Clarke is looking to the future.

“This club is known for a great facility and great field, one of the best in the country,” Clarke said. “They play good, attractive soccer and win a lot of games. But the one thing that’s missing is a championship, and that’s the big goal of why I’m here….I want to be the first coach here to win that championship.”

Click here to watch the Colin Clarke press conference in its entirety.