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Friday, May 29, 2009

RailHawks to continue feasting at the bottom of the table?

Posted by on Fri, May 29, 2009 at 2:33 AM

click to enlarge Daniel Paladini (left) against the Cleveland City Stars on May 22  (photo courtesy of the Carolina RailHawks)
  • Daniel Paladini (left) against the Cleveland City Stars on May 22 (photo courtesy of the Carolina RailHawks)

After two frustrating seasons, fans in WakeMed Soccer Park tonight will be excused for some hard-earned self-congratulation—and considering the woefulness of the opponent, the Cleveland City Stars, who are in 10th place with only two goals scored versus 12 allowed, they should expect to see three more points added to the Carolina RailHawks' points column.

The RailHawks have gotten off to an extraordinary start. They're in first place in the USL-1, three points clear of the Charleston Battery (although the Battery have a game in hand). The RailHawks' in-house blogger Tim Candon put this season's performance in perspective in his notes in advance of tonight's fixture against Cleveland:

In the team's first two seasons, it did not record its 19th point until the 15th game of the season. In 2007, the RailHawks didn't win their sixth game until their 23rd match of the season. In 2008, they didn't win their sixth game until their 24th match of the season. They've accomplished both feats this year in nine games.

Before this season, the RailHawks had never won three matches in a row. This year, they've done it twice. The latest three-match win streak occurred on the road, the longest such success away from WakeMed Soccer Park the team's ever enjoyed.

In amassing a record of six wins, two losses and a draw, the RailHawks are also the league leaders in goals scored, with 11. What's especially impressive is the fact that no player has more than two goals—nine players have scored those 11 goals. On the other end of the field, only five goals have been conceded and six of the nine games have been clean sheets.

The last three games—all on the road—have been especially impressive: The team has scored six goals and given up none. Looking over the match sheets since the RailHawks last lost on May 9, there are several developments that seem to be key to the steady humming of the RailHawks machine. 

  • One is that Sallieu Bundu, who seemed to be the No. 1 striker all through the preseason and through the first, relatively unprolific weeks of the season, has dropped from view in favor of Andriy Budnyy and Gavin Glinton.
  • John Cunliffe is seeing more minutes on the left wing, sharing the position with Josh Gardner, who got the most minutes there in the season's early stages.

Of perhaps greater note, however, is the emergence of two other players:

  • Jeremy Tolleson seems to be fully recovered from the injury that hobbled him earlier in the season and now the blond defender—one of several old hands with first-year coach Martin Rennie—has assumed a regular role in the back four. After Jack Stewart broke his fibula against Miami, Tolleson, normally a left back, moved to center with captain Mark Schulte. 
  • Daniel Paladini has emerged as the crucial midfield playmaker. He only appeared as a second-half sub in the loss to the Battery three weeks ago, but has been a starter in the three games since, scoring once and delivering three assists. 

The success of the team thus far has been a real cause of good cheer, but there's an important caveat, too. The RailHawks are piling up their points at the expense of the league's weakest teams. Five victories have come against teams in the league's bottom five. The other four games have been against the league's Nos. 2, 3 and 4 teams. In those four games, the RailHawks have won once, drawn once and lost twice, for a total of four points. 

Furthermore, the RailHawks have yet to play against three formidable sides: the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Montreal Impact and the Puerto Rico Islanders. These three teams are currently mired in the middle of the table, but there's no reason to suppose that these clubs, who are respectively the defending USL-1 Cup champs, a CONCACAF quarterfinalist and a CONCACAF semifinalist, will be anything but tough competition. (Montreal is already showing signs of life after sacking the lamentable coach John Limniatis*, tearing the Austin Aztex limb-to-limb 4-0.)

Tonight should see another RailHawks victory—Cleveland will be lucky to score, but don't count on it. And a Cleveland victory seems unlikely. Stranger things have happened, though.

Ticket sales for the 8 p.m. game seem to be brisk, but the weather forecast is looking iffy. For those who can't get to Cary, the game will be on the telly in better pubs and dens, on Fox Soccer Channel. We'll be at the ball park, hope to see you there. 

* True story about Limniatis: In a game last season at WakeMed Soccer Park, his behavior was so obnoxious that a couple of Cary soccer moms began to heckle him. Limniatis looked up at them and started jawing back, while the game was in progress.  

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