In four years, two different ownership groups have tackled professional soccer in the Triangle.

They looked at the thriving youth soccer community in the Triangle, the established Atlantic Coast Conference teams and the growing number of educated young professionals with expendable incomea key soccer demographic in this countryand thought if they could just put together a winning team, the fans would follow.

As we write this, the future of the Carolina RailHawks is up in the air. The team is changing hands, probably to Traffic Sports USA, the American subsidiary of a Brazil-based player management agency, after two years of ownership by majority owner Selby Wellman, a former Cisco Systems executive.

Complicating the picture is the uncertain status of the new league that the RailHawks propose to join. Late last week, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) denied sanctioning to the North American Soccer League (NASL), a crucial blow that casts into doubt the ability of the RailHawks to put a team on the field this year. Just 10 weeks away from the scheduled season openera televised rematch between Carolina and last year’s Division 2 champion, the Puerto Rico Islandersthe future of the franchise is uncertain.

With events in flux and key figures declining to be interviewed, we took the opportunity to discuss the history of the team and the challenges of succeeding with three longtime observers and participants in the local soccer scene.

Jim Houghton was chief operating officer of the RailHawks last season and is now speaking publicly for the first time since his tenure ended, by mutual consent, in November. Houghton was hired in February of last year and drew from his experience as communications director for the Carolina Courage, the women’s professional team that played its matches in the same Cary stadium as the RailHawks, and with Chicago Red Stars, a defunct women’s team that competed in the Women’s Professional Soccer league.

The Courage competed in the Women’s United Soccer Association, which launched just after the 1999 World Cup craze. They played three seasons before the league, which owned all of the teams in a single-entity structure, folded. The team drew an average of 3,500 fans per contest, 2,800 of whom paid for admission, according to Houghton.

“The books of the Carolina Courage looked better than anyone else’s books,” Houghton said. “It didn’t mean we still weren’t losing money, but we were really on an upward swing toward sustainability. We had great corporate support in the community. We had terrific media coverage, we had loyal sophisticated audiences who regularly attended, but being part of a single entity means if one teams goes away it becomes very difficult to prop up the league.”

He maintains that a better grassroots marketing campaign is the single most pressing need in the organization.

“There’s no question that winning on the field has a relationship with increased attendances, but it can’t be the only thing,” said Houghton.

While it’s easy to look at soccer moms and expect a built-in audience, those families are often “over-programmed” and it’s difficult to expect families to consistently attend professional matches on top of youth games.

So Houghton aimed to supplement quality soccer with activities in and around the field that would draw new audiences. He expanded a beer garden and sought to add live music to tailgating activities to create a festival-like atmosphere. But the concerts lasted only one game after funding was cut. Attendance continued to languish in 2010, with regular-season home games drawing between 1,605 and 2,879 fans to the team’s 7,000-capacity stadium.

Houghton is now part of a lengthy list of former RailHawk employees. During the team’s five-year run, more than 50 people have worked in the front office, no more than 10 at one time. One person who has seen them come and go is Caleb Norkus, who is one of only two players to play for the RailHawks for all four of its seasons.

“It just helps to have some more regularity there,” Norkus said. “It was definitely kind of interesting to say the least at the end of the season when there were a whole lot of turnover so it made me ask some questions as to what was going on.

“I think at the same time,” Norkus continued, “soccerin our country and [in] the areais in a place where we have to scrape by to help it to be successful, so you’ve got to kind of cut some corners sometimes, unfortunately. I guess some people are having to look out for themselves.”

Norkus, a one-time member of the United States’ under-17 national team, grew up in Raleigh and starred at UNC. He was popular with the fans, and his ubiquity helped earn him the sobriquet “Mr. RailHawk.” He proposed to his wife on the opening day of the 2009 season, just after she sang the national anthem. But after a 2010 campaign in which he rarely even dressed for games, the 31-year-old Norkus was cut. The team wanted to get younger, they told him.

“I was really fortunate to have that dream [of being on a local pro team] come true,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep it going, but this team seems to have more turnover than most teams.”

Norkus is now keeping fit by playing with the CASL Elite, an amateur side composed of former pros and collegians. His departure from the RailHawks was met with displeasure on local soccer message boards, a striking display of solidarity with a player who has not regularly featured in a couple of years.

Norkus was frequently the player signing autographs or challenging students to read and stay in shape at the team’s community appearances. With his affable good looks and local roots, Norkus is the kind of player that a marketing team can build a campaign around. But in the interest of striving to be as competitive on the field as possible, the RailHawks, moved away from playing local players in favor of rising, but unknown, foreign talents who aspire to more prestigious leagues.

Houghton says that having a lot of transient players who are focused on advancement makes it difficult to build a marketing campaign around specific individuals. Carolina Courage players, on the other hand, were already playing in the best league in the world and were more willing to stay in the market during the off-season and were more likely to invest themselves in the community.

The Durham Bulls have similar obstacles to developing fan identification with players, but they are able to succeed because they provide a managed entertainment experience, complete with family inducements like inflatable sumo wrestling, face-painting and sponsored giveaways. The ballpark is also located downtown, where fans can make an evening of it, whereas the RailHawks games are played in the Cary suburbs, isolated from bars and restaurants.

The fans who have come to WakeMed have witnessed some quality soccer on a world-class facility. The grass is perfectly manicured. The ball rolls with few bumps. Jarrett Campbell has seen more than most. He leads a group of 250 of the rowdiest and most committed RailHawks fans, who bang drums, join in song and inhabit the cheap seats behind the goal.

He wants to see the team compete in a regional league against established teams in Charlotte and Wilmington to save operating costs and to create local rivalries. As it stands now, away games are played too far away for supporters to attend them.

Such a regional league hasn’t been possible because the RailHawks split with the United Soccer League (USL), where they played for the first three seasons, and joined the nascent NASL, a venture that is presently bogged down in a sanctioning dispute with the USSF. [Nonetheless, NASL released its 2011 schedule late Tuesday; the Independent‘s sports blog, Triangle Offense, has covered this dispute since it erupted more than a year ago.]

However, what stings for many local soccer fans is that there are other teams in the stateand in Virginia and South Carolinathat would make natural rivals for a Triangle-based team. But those teams allied with the USL. For Campbell, a league with regional rivalries would be preferable.

“Because of bad blood, that will never happen,” Campbell says, speaking of the bridges that were burned when the Wellman-owned RailHawks joined other dissident teams to form the NASL.

“I think they’ve probably got one last chance to make this thing work.”

After a decade of pro soccer in the Triangle, it’s clear that there’s a fan base that can provide modest crowds to the first-rate pitch at WakeMed Soccer Park. But if it’s so difficult, is it worth doing? Houghton thinks so.

“A soccer team can be more than just casual entertainment; it can mean something much deeper to a community,” he says.

“When I was with the RailHawks there were so many times that people would come up to me and say, ‘Boy, I really miss the Courage, those were some great ladies.’ And they’ll talk about how meaningful it was to them when they were here and what a big void it left when they left.

“I’m sure it will be the same with the RailHawks if they no longer continue, but what has to happen to build that identification with fans is better marketing.”

Follow Triangle Offense‘s sports reporting on Twitter: @IndyweekSports.