⇒ Also this week in Sports: Previewing the Durham Bulls in 2009

The Cary-based Carolina RailHawks kick off their 2009 regular season at 7 p.m. this Saturday at WakeMed Park against the Minnesota Thunder. Last month, we published an interview with Martin Rennie, the team’s 33-year-old first-year head coach, in which he expressed a serene worldview, an almost fatalistic confidence that the pieces of the team will fall into place and success will follow. However, Rennie doubtlessly knows the pressure to win will be intense.

The team, which plays in the United Soccer League’s first division (USL-1), has had mixed results during the preseason, which began with an auspicious victory over the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer. That was followed by a strong losing effort against Honduran power C.D. Olimpia and, last Saturday, a disappointing loss to the Richmond Kickers of the lower-tier USL-2. At this writing, almost the entire roster has been filled, and we’ve seen enough of the team to make a few confident observations that will arm you with the knowledge you need this Saturday.

  • Not only is the coach new, but from the front office to the field, this is a very different team than last year. There are only five players on the current roster that played for Carolina in 2008; the only likely returning starter this weekend is midfielder Kupono Low (although Matt Watson, when he returns from his “off-season” job for a Baltimore indoor team, could also start). Given the massive influx of new players, it will take some time for team chemistry to develop. Be patient.

  • It looks like Rennie will employ a 4-5-1 formation. This gives maximum flexibility in attack, allowing the outside midfielders (almost certainly Luke Kreamalmeyer and Josh Gardner) the luxury of pressing far up the field without having to worry about recovering defensively. Twin defensive central midfielders (likely Amir Lowery and probably Low) will support an attacking midfielder (perhaps Joseph Kabwe or Brian Plotkin) whose job it will be to combine with the lone striker (likely Sallieu Bundu) in attack. The RailHawks will usually have five players back defensively, which should prevent counterattacks from the run of play.

  • The central defensive pairing of Jack Stewart and Mark Schulte will provide a strong physical presence in a very physical league. The outside backs (John Gilkerson and Devon McKenney have been getting the starts so far) are quick and will take the opportunity to get forward when they can. It is unlikely that the RailHawks will get beat in the aerial game, which is apropos.

  • This is a more possession-oriented team than the previous iterations of the RailHawks. If you see this team lumping it up the field in hopes of reaching the opposing penalty area, something has gone terribly wrong. Rennie will rarely use the same starting 11 two games in a row, which will keep the competition for starting roles high in practice.

  • This is a very technical team. The soccer we see this season will be crisper, faster and more fluid than before. The early indications are that the forwards and midfielders have the ability to take on defenders at pace, creating opportunities for themselves. Gardner’s ability to serve balls from the left wing is superb, and striker Bundu is pure class with the ball at his feet.

  • This is a large, physical team. Few teams will out-jump, -run or -muscle the RailHawks this year. As their fitness improves, look for increasing levels of defensive pressure higher up the field.

  • Carolina will score more goals from set pieces than their opponents. One reason for this is the huge throw-in that Schulte can deliver to the penalty spot. This weapon has already caused headaches for opponents. Also look for Carolina to score from more crosses and by combination play around the edge of the area.

  • Carolina will likely concede goals on counterattacks when the central defenders are up for corners and throw-ins. They will also be vulnerable when teams are able to pull the central defenders into wide positions where their bulk becomes a disadvantage.

Chris Gaffney covers the Carolina RailHawks for Triangle Offense, the Indy‘s sports blog.