Many of the reasons the Carolina RailHawks have been successful over the past three seasons, including winning last seasons regular-season title, are gone. Five RailHawks players moved on to Major League Soccer and numerous others began to explore their options as their contracts expired.
But that allowed new coach Colin Clarke, who comes over from the Puerto Rico Islanders where he won the 2010 division 2 playoffs and won the 2008 regular season title, to piece together his own recipe for success in Carolina. Its one that evenly mixes young talent with older veterans as well as local products with returning players and newcomers whose roots are outside the Triangle.
As the 2012 season gets ready to kick off this Saturday with Carolina visiting Minnesota Stars FC, 13 of its players are 25 and younger, while 10 are 26-and-up. Six of those younger than 25 either played in the Triangle during college, high school or both.
The older group are good pros. Theyre teaching the younger kids and taking them under their wing and letting them know what it takes to become professional soccer players, said Clarke.
Clarke was able to retain six players from last years squad, with four midfielders Nick Zimmerman and Chris Nurse along with defenders Kupono Low and John Krause seeing regular playing time. Four other players, including two player-coaches, come back to Carolina after one-year stints in other locations.
Important signings from within Division 2 have Carolina looking like it will be a contender for more accolades this year, which is exactly what Clarke plans to do.
My expectations are to win a championship. It never changes. Thats what you go into the season for, Clarke said. I believe weve got a team together and a roster together that can do it.Playing style
In Puerto Rico, Clarkes teams were known to avoid playing too many passes along the ground because the pitch was rugged, and sometimes a pass would veer away from its intended target as it bumped across the field.
Thats never a problem at WakeMed Soccer Park, where the playing surface has been lauded by visiting players and coaches alike.
Clarke said hed like this team to work the ball through the middle, though in its last two exhibition matches the team got the ball to its forwards almost exclusively via crosses from the wings.
The talent up top is undeniable, as forward Jason Garey comes in from MLS Houston Dynamo to join forwards Brian Shriver and Brian Ackley, midfielders Mike Palacio and Tiyi Shipalane (with Carolina in 2010) and Zimmerman.
Its neat to have that many options, Zimmerman said. The more we play together, the more we feel comfortable and figure out what we can each do.
The chemistry may take awhile to develop for the group, but Palacio and Shriver, a UNC-Chapel Hill grad, have experience playing with one another for Fort Lauderdale, where Shriver had 11 goals and Palacio had four assists. This years group may focus more on possession than in seasons past.
When we have it, we want to keep it. We want to make the right decision and if its not on, keep it, Zimmerman said. Physical players
Clarkes philosophy on defense is to have big, bruising backs and holding midfielders.
His structure has been put into place by the signing of 20-year-old Gale Agbossoumonde, a 6-foot-2 U.S. mens national team hopeful who will miss the season opener and possibly longer due to a turf toe injury. Other imposing center backs James Scott and Austen King were brought into the fold to join Krause.
We have physical guys... guys I would not want to play, Palacio said. Theyre a couple of guys who like to hit people which is a good thing.
In the last two exhibitions, Clarke used Sam Stockley, a 34-year-old newcomer, as a wing back, pushed far up almost to the middle of the formation.
While most teams are content to have one strong defensive midfielder, Carolina has two in the technical Chris Nurse, a returning player who also spent a year under Clarke in Puerto Rico, and Amir Lowery, a punishing player who played two seasons in Carolina from 2009-10.
Nurse and Lowery will be counted on to help the back line if Stockley or another wing back are caught out of position pushing forward.
Kupono Low, the only player remaining from Carolinas inaugural season in 2007, returns to left back after being named to the NASLs Best XI last year.
Goalkeeper Ray Burse comes over from Puerto Rico, where he has experience playing with Clarke as well as FC Dallas when the two were in MLS. He will be challenged for starts by 24-year-old Akira Fitzgerald, who was on last years team but never suited up for Carolina.
Theyve both got an opportunity to start, Clarke said. Rays probably a little more experienced because Akrias been here and not played enough games.Filling roster
There are two player-coaches on this years squad, and both played for the RailHawks in 2010.
Nic Platter is taking on the roles of goalkeeper coach and third-string goalkeeper, while 35-year-old Greg Shields may find a way into the lineup for spot action at right back while assisting Clarke.
Clarke said he wanted to only add one player to the teams roster, but a late arrival of Cary native Zack Schilawski, who was released a month ago by the MLS New England Revolution, could make signing two players tempting.
The RailHawks already had former 24-year-old Austin da Luz, a midfielder who has played for the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United in the MLS, in camp before Schilawski showed up for his trial. Schilawski, 24, played two seasons for the Revolution and scored six goals in 50 appearances (28 starts).
UPDATE: The RailHawks signed da Luz but released defender Cory Miller on Tuesday, so a spot for Schilawski could still be available.