By the end of Independence Day, the North American Soccer League had its spring season champion, the team that will host the Soccer Bowl championship in November against the winner of the fall season.
It wasnt the Carolina RailHawks.
That was a hard pill to swallow there had been so much focus on winning.
In the offseason, the team built itself to take advantage of the new format. While other teams had wholesale changes in the offseason and figured on taking some time to jell not a luxury given in a 12-game season Carolina held its core together.
Despite being without last seasons top goal-scorer in Nick Zimmerman due to injury, it looked like the plan worked perfectly through 10 games.
The RailHawks needed just one win in its final two games or two ties to pull out the spring season title. Instead, it tied 1-1 against Atlanta before losing 2-0 at San Antonio in the spring season finale.
Atlanta won 3-0 against Minnesota United and celebrated the title from its locker room as the RailHawks fell.
Injuries can be assessed some of the blame in the final stages of the year. Although the team grew accustomed to playing without Zimmerman, offseason goal-scoring acquisition Nick Adderly or up-and-coming midfielder Breneir Ortiz, it wasnt done with the injury bug.
Tiyi Shipalane missed the final three games of the NASL season, as did valuable center back Julius James. Shipalane was arguably the teams MVP this season, and was MVP last year.
With that in mind going into the final two regular-season games, coach Colin Clarke took a calculated gamble that showed that when the players said theyd rather win the NASL spring title than do well in the U.S. Open Cup, it wasnt just talk.
Rather than play starters for the third time in eight games, Clarke sat many of them for a midweek U.S. Open Cup game at Major League Soccer Real Salt Lake.
Essentially the clubs B team lost 3-0 to Real Salt Lake. A win would have given the RailHawks a home match in the next round with only four games left.
The payoff would have been to wrap up the NASL title in the next game, but that moment never came.
The fall season, which is 14 games and will include the New York Cosmos as a new NASL team, starts Aug. 3. The RailHawks will host FC Edmonton to kick off that season.
Carolinas hope is to get a little healthier and find a way into the Nov. 9 Soccer Bowl now hosted by Atlanta.
Blake: 919-460-2606 or twitter.com/JMBpreps.