Carolina RailHawks season preview

Carolina RailHawks season preview

mblake@newsobserver.comApril 14, 2014 

Exciting RailHawks player Tiyi Shipalane, seen here on April 13, 2013, returns as one of the fan favorites.

STEVEN WORTHY — newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • What to watch for

    Home match streak: Carolina enters the year without having lost a home match since 2012 – a streak of 16 games that includes some improbable last-minute comebacks.

    Homegrown players: The RailHawks have five players who played high school soccer in Wake County and eight who played at one of the “big four” ACC schools in college. Defender Austen King also played nearby, growing up in Wilson and playing college soccer at Elon.

    Fan favorites: Midfielder Tiyi Shipalane, known for his exciting goal-scoring moves, veteran defender Kupono Low, the only player left from the inaugural 2007 season, and Nick Zimmerman, the second-leading scorer in franchise history, are back this year.

    New board, times: A new video board and sound system will greet WakeMed Soccer Park patrons this year, and home games have been pushed back to 7:30 p.m. starts. Games began at 7 p.m. last year.

    Sprinting through spring: Carolina tied its opener 1-1 at the Indy Eleven. That leaves only seven more games to try and finish first for an automatic home game in the four-team playoffs. The winner of the spring season, in which all nine teams will play each other once, will have an automatic home game in a four-game postseason. So too will the fall season winner.

    The “RailHawks rule”: What’s new to the NASL format is that the split-season champs will be joined by the next two teams that have the best overall records from the two seasons combined. The adding of the two non-season champs might as well be called the “RailHawks rule.” It was Carolina who last season was left out of the playoffs despite having the best overall record between the two seasons, finishing second both times.

After being tantalizingly close to a spot in the North American Soccer League’s Soccer Bowl championship game last year, the Carolina RailHawks did not join in an offseason arms race with other NASL teams.

San Antonio signed a former Major League Soccer star in Eric Hassli, the New York Cosmos re-signed a former Spanish World Cup starter, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies signed away the RailHawks’ Brian Shriver, who led the league in goals in 2013.

There’s no question Carolina didn’t spend as much as those teams did, but there is a chance the team may have spent more wisely. Always shrewd, president Curt Johnson brings back nine players with plenty of starting experience. The RailHawks were second in both the NASL’s fall and spring season last year, but winning either one would have earned a spot in the Soccer Bowl.

The pieces are there for another strong season of second-division soccer in Cary. After tying the season opener last weekend in Indianapolis, the RailHawks open up the home season this Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park at 7:30 p.m.

“Since I’ve been here we certainly haven’t been at the top end of the salary list in terms of resources, and that’s fine. We do try to spend shrewdly. We returned a lot of the key players from last year,” said Johnson, who is entering his fourth year.

For the most part, those signed to fill the void of Shriver, captain Austin da Luz and the like are young and unproven. One notable exception is Jun Marques Davidson, back in Carolina after a three-year hiatus and coming off two seasons in MLS.

But Johnson likes this team, which will be led by coach Colin Clarke for the third straight year.

“Having a strong core group of players is always a goal. You want to keep some continuity in your team. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel every single year,” Johnson said. “The team that can play closest to their best early in the year is going to likely win the spring season.”

Davidson and Nick Millington will start as holding midfielders. The back line will have three new additions – Connor Tobin, Jordan Burt and Daniel Scott – to play alongside left back Kupono Low (NASL Best XI in 2011) and in front of goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald.

The RailHawks will start just one forward, Zack Schilawski (3 goals, 5 assists goals in all competitions), who scored the only Carolina goal in last weekend’s season opener. His most important role will be how he possesses and plays balls to a capable crop of attacking midfielders like Tiyi Shipalane (3 goals, 6 assists), Cesar Elizondo (3 goals) and Enzo Martinez (1 goal and 3 assists in 40 minutes).

Nick Zimmerman (NASL Best XI in 2012), who missed all of last season with nagging injuries, can be added to the list if his recovery goes well. He’s “week-to-week” to start the year and did not start in the opener.

Another encouraging offseason development for the RailHawks happens to be in the stands, where – if early indications hold true – season ticket sales could increase for the fourth consecutive year.

“We’re still selling right now but we’re ahead of last year’s pace, which was a record-setting year,” Johnson said.

RailHawks coverage on Twitter: @SWakeSports.

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