Carolina RailHawks vs. New England Revolution
7 p.m. Saturday, March 14
WakeMed Soccer Park

Martin Rennie is a busy man. The coach of the Carolina RailHawks soccer club shows up for our interview a few minutes late, phone to his ear, having come from a meeting after giving a post-training interview. He asks leave to make a few more calls as we walk to the Town of Cary luxury box at WakeMed Soccer Park.

Rennie looks the part of a “football manager,” trim, young, tan, dressed head to toe in stylish training gear. He’s 33 years old, a veteran player in Scottish and American pro leagues, and poised to begin only his third season coaching at the fully professional level.

Despite his youth and seeming inexperience, expectations are high for him in Cary, where fans have seen two mediocre seasons come and go. In his last job, two years spent coaching the Cleveland City Stars in the United Soccer League’s second division (one rung below the USL-1 in which the RailHawks play), Rennie took his teams to one regular season second-place finish and one championship. Along the way, he won USL-2 coach of the year awards in both years, and has seen a number of his players find jobs playing in Europe and Major League Soccer (MLS).

Appointed as the RailHawks’ gaffer on Nov. 13 of last year, Rennie has made dramatic changes to the team in the short time he has been at the helm. At this writing, only six players on the 20-strong roster remain from last year’s squad. Among the departed are two-year captain Frankie Sanfilippo and two-year goalkeeper Chris McClellan. The roster is now filled with players with experience in top European leagues, as well as the MLS, ostensibly the top league in America. Two new players, midfielders Marcelo Romero and Paul Ritchie, have extensive experience in the celebrated La Liga of Spain and the English Premier League, respectively.

This Saturday, local soccer fans will get their first look at how competitive Rennie’s made-over team is when it faces the New England Revolution of the MLS for a preseason exhibition, or “friendly.”

As we sit down to talk about the new-look RailHawks, Rennie puts his buzzing iPhone and BMW keys on the table. He is relaxed, unstressed, cool, eager and confident. I ask him about the new team that he is still putting together: an eclectic mix of players from South America, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and the United States.

Independent Weekly: How does a coach manage these different styles, personality types and expectations and make them into a cohesive team?

Martin Rennie: I don’t care where they’re from. I just want to get the best players I can get. The reason [the mix] works is to get guys who are here just for soccer … their main thought, their main motivation, their main focus is just soccer.

Describe your coaching personality and its influence on your players and teams.

Whoever the players are you have to care for them. Almost serve them in a way, not in a way that you’re a doormat, but in a way that they know that you want the best for them and are there to help them … ultimately, people are basically the samethey want to know that you care about them and what they do.

How would you describe the locker-room environment?

I work very hard to create a positive environment where there is trust and people do not talk about each other behind each other’s backs. When you know the guy next to you has got your back, then everyone is winning, even if the result doesn’t go your way.

What’s your training environment like?

I am really organized. I have everything set up and ready to go by the time the players get there so they’re not waiting around 45 minutes to get going. I know that they are enjoying playing but that they are also learning things. I also try to instill an idea of what it means to work hard to get better. For instance, are you prepared to look at the positive on a down day? Are you prepared to sit on the bench for a month to get better and stronger?

Working hard is not just a matter of putting in physical effort; this is frequently the easiest element of “hard work.”

Why so many new signings?

This is by far the most players that there have ever been available. The MLS teams are cutting rosters, college players are coming out to a smaller market and there is an abundance of talent. I am taking my time to find the best players available. No one has a guaranteed spot. I will always put the best 11 players on the field for a given game.

What are your own ambitions for the season?

Obviously, it’s going to take time to build a team that wins. […] I know that some days you’re not going to win, I know that some days it’s going to be disappointing, and that some days it’s not going to be the way you wanted it, and as long as you know that coming into it you will get what you want.

What in your life brings you to have such a sagacious perspective at your age?

I’ve got quite a strong faith and I believe that God’s in control of my life and has got a plan for my life and ultimately that is going to supercede whatever happens. That takes away that constant fear and worry about what is going to happen next. In business, I learned that my success wasn’t based upon what other people thought but was based on the results I achieved. You don’t have to look far to find criticism. You also have to consider who is criticizing you and why they’re criticizing you.

To tell the truth, I hope that the press becomes critical here, because that means they’re interested. When your own self-image is strong, outside criticism doesn’t hurt as much. The internal criticism (within the team) is the most important part to manage. All the arguments you have about soccer are only going to be won if you win. You can have an opinion; I can have an opinion. If my team wins, I’m right.

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