In a widely discussed story in The New York Times Magazine in February, writer Michael Lewis held up the example of a Houston Rockets forward, former Duke All-American Shane Battier, as a vital basketball player whose contributions are difficult to quantify. It was a fascinating piece, but also one that illustrated the tendency in American sport to demand statistical analysis.
Then there's soccer, and the soccer midfield. It's hard to think of another major team sport where so many positions are played with so few statistics. A case in point: Those who watched highlights of the European Champions League final last month, a 2-0 Barcelona victory over Manchester United, would have seen goals scored by two star forwards who, between them, scored 72 times during the year. But the expert consensus was that Barcelona won the game, which was watched by more people than the Super Bowl, with the sublime play of its two attacking midfielders, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi. When Iniesta was finally taken off near the end of the game, his brilliance could only be quantified by the graphic on the ESPN screen that reported he had completed 86 percent of his passes. While that is an impressive-sounding number, it doesn't pack the wallop of, say, "Kobe scored 40," or "Pujols went four for five with two homers and six RBIs." Yet, in this Champions League final, it was Xavi, one of Barcelona's nonscoring midfielders, who completed a staggering 94 percent of his passes—including one that met the head of Lionel Messi who redirected it for the game's second goal—who was named the "man of the match."
Soccer is a team game, notwithstanding the publicity given to the goal scorers, and successful teams have 11 players in positions that vary in complexity and responsibility. In Cary, the Carolina RailHawks are presently near the top of the USL-1 standings, and they are, even by the egalitarian standards of soccer, an extraordinarily balanced side. They've scored 12 goals so far this season, but the scoring has been distributed among nine players.
It's a dangerous, multi-pronged attack, and its beating heart is the center of its midfield. Daniel Paladini, Matt Watson and Amir Lowery are the three in the lineup most often, and they're a formidable trio. Paladini and Watson are the attacking midfielders, while Lowery's job as a defensive, or "holding," midfielder is to stay behind them, in front of the back line. All three are once and future MLS prospects: The California-born and -bred Paladini played last season for Chivas USA; Lowery, a 6-foot-2 bruiser and Wake Forest alumnus, has done developmental stints with three MLS sides; and Watson, an Englishman who was the RailHawks' team MVP last season, spent a week during the off-season training with the San Jose Earthquakes before opting to return to Cary. Together, they are as strong, fast, dexterous and durable as any trio the Triangle has to offer.
Yet, among them, they've only scored two goals—and neither came during the run of play: Paladini scored both, one on a penalty kick and the other on a 30-yard, heat-seeking missile of a free kick. (It's a point worth noting—if of limited usefulness—that in the two RailHawks losses this season, Paladini was not in the lineup for one and played only as a second-half substitute in the other.)
For Watson, the job of scoring goals is simply one part of the division of labor on the field. "The striker's main skill is finding the back of the net. Defenders win headers and clear crosses, while midfielders have to get up and down the field."
Paladini turns to an American sports metaphor: "I'm like a quarterback: I get balls to people." But unlike the quarterback, who only plays defense after he throws an interception, the midfielder needs to play offense and defense along the length of the field—"box to box" in soccer parlance.
It's a complex job, playing midfield. The team's 34-year-old Scottish coach, Martin Rennie—who, like many coaches, was a midfielder (and a right back)—describes Paladini as a player who's able to "time his runs, and mark his men, not letting them get goal-side of him. He plays passes to dangerous areas and deep positions, hitting them with diagonal passes."
The midfielders are responsible for maintaining the formation on the field, meaning they must adjust themselves to make sure the proper balance between offense and defense is maintained. Paladini says, "Martin explains that we should know where people are at all times—we should make a quick mental picture of the field."
"Most of the time, one of us is making a run," Watson says. When he or Paladini is advancing forward, "the other needs to be back on defense. Otherwise, you're susceptible to a counterattack on the right or the left."
Paladini says, "I try to stay close to Watson—if he goes forward and one of our outside backs go forward, I need to get back. If the four are back, then Watson and I have freedom to go to the box."
In any complex, attacking soccer team, the right and left defensive backs are also offensive weapons that make runs down the flanks—but they must deploy themselves judiciously. And it's the midfielders' responsibility to react and adjust to their play. Referring to Devon McKenney, the RailHawks' aggressive right back, Paladini says, "If the ball is switched to Luke [Kreamalmeyer, the right wing forward] but Devon hasn't gone forward, then I'll go two-vee-one with him. If Devon goes, he plays with Luke. Then my job is to get to the top [of the 18-yard box] or just inside the 18."
In conversations with RailHawks players and coaches, the notion of "something to prove" comes up repeatedly. It's a motivating force for the club and for players, including Paladini.
After a first-rate college career at Cal State-Northridge, he was drafted by the LA Galaxy and its then-coach Steve Sampson (who also coached the U.S. in the 1998 World Cup). Paladini moved to Chivas USA, where he secured another developmental contract and scored one goal in eight appearances last season. Chivas offered him a contract for this season, but Paladini decided to look for a place where he could get more playing time.
Paladini ended up in Cary because Rennie was recruiting Josh Gardner, the team's left wing, from the Seattle Sounders. Gardner told Rennie about Paladini, who happens to be his brother-in-law. Paladini was invited to camp in February, and he was signed. "Martin has done an excellent job bringing us all together, to become a family," Paladini says. "We started training a month and a half earlier than other teams."
Indeed, the accelerated training schedule was an early sign that the club, too, had something to prove. After a promising inaugural year in 2007, the team slid backward last season and missed the playoffs. Now, with the addition of one of the country's most promising young coaches and the acquisition of players with MLS and European experience, the RailHawks are jostling with the Charleston Battery for first place.
This week, though, a new competition began that the club is anxious to prove itself in: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. In existence since 1914, the Open Cup is a tournament open to professional and amateur American sides. For the scrappy upstarts in the USL first and second divisions, it's also an opportunity to knock off teams from the MLS—which happens often. Last season, the RailHawks' Southern Derby rival in Charleston made it to the finals before succumbing to D.C. United of the MLS.
For Paladini, the tournament offers a chance to catch the interest of MLS scouts. "There are two or three new teams coming into the league," he notes, including Philadelphia, which begins play next season. "Their coach, Peter Novak, will hopefully be looking at USL players."
Paladini came here, he says, because "I wanted to play, and I wanted to win a championship. In the Open Cup, if we can get by the USL-2 teams, we'll face MLS teams." A victory in the Open Cup, while a long shot, carries a prestigious reward: a slot in the CONCACAF Champions League—a tournament of the best clubs in North and Central America and the Caribbean. Paladini says this would take the RailHawks organization to one of its ultimate goals: "Creating an all-year team at Carolina."
The Carolina RailHawks began play in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Tuesday, June 9, against the USL-2 Richmond Kickers, after the Indy went to press. If victorious against Richmond, the RailHawks will play Round 2 on Tuesday, June 16, at WakeMed Soccer Park, against either the Wilmington Hammerheads or the Charlotte Eagles, both of the USL-2. The RailHawks resume league play at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 11, versus the Portland Timbers at WakeMed. Visit www.carolinarailhawks.com for tickets and scheduling; follow the RailHawks on Triangle Offense, the Indy's sports blog: www.indyweekblogs.com/sports.
Update: The RailHawks won 2-1 June 9, on goals by Daniel Paladini and Hamed Diallo, and will play Wilmington June 16.