WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Up until Saturday night, the Carolina RailHawks had been peppering the back of the net on the practice fields against local college teams as a couple dozen fanatics and family members stood along the sidelines. A short walk across the parking lot, they found a bigger club, the MLS's New England Revolution, a bigger crowd, 3,538 officially, and even field lights that allowed coaches to see what was happening across the pitch.
The Cary club, introducing a few new players to a group that finished second in the USL last season and experimenting with a new formation, fell 2-1 to the MLS side, though they were touting the glass-half-full view afterward.
"Sometimes in preseason it's actually better to lose. It sounds silly," said RailHawks coach Martin Rennie, who had just witnessed his team equalize in the 85th only to concede the winner to local product Zack Schilawski two minutes later.
"When you don't play that well, which we didn't, and you lose, it gives you a chance to really build on something and to really show people, 'Hey, this ins't quite good enough, and this is where we need to improve.' From that perspective, coaching wise, I'm really positive about it. Nobody seemed to pick up any major injuries, everyone seemed to come through OK. A lot of guys played 90 minutes, which is really good at this stage of the season, so I feel like we're on track."
It must be preseason.
In addition to Rennie's upbeat attitude, there were other signs of a dress rehearsal such as New England's 61st minute quadruple substitution, which featured only two players with names on the back of their shirts, part of 11 combined swaps made by the clubs, and the rotating technicolor footwear sported by RailHawks defender Mark Schulte.
Spotted wearing black and red Nike boots a week ago, Schulte warmed up in yellow cleats before entering the game in the 66th with Ninja Turtle green shoes with red laces.
"I love these shoes," Schulte said of the Nike Total90 Laser III model. "Gosh they're ugly, but I love how they feel."
We're used to seeing world-class goal scorers Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres bulge the old onion bag (apologies to Tommie Smyth) with the odd colored $200 boots, but they seemed an interesting choice for a workmanlike center back. But after watching Schulte drill a shot into the upper 90 with them, scoring the team's lone goal of the match amid a scramble from a corner kick, I'm thinking Nike's claim that "it's gotta be the shoes" must have some weight to it.
"I just closed my eyes and hit it hard," Schulte said.
Schulte, who usually shouts out traffic for the team at the back and expects to retain the captain's armband this year "if I can find it," wasn't fit to play 90 minutes, but made an impact after coming on in the 66th. In addition to his blind strike, he played a pass to holding midfielder Amir Lowery that led to Schilawski's winner.
"Mark passed me the ball. I controlled it, and I took a touch and got tripped," said Lowery, sporting a freshly trimmed mohawk.
"The ref didn't call it. I think Nic (Platter) made a good save, and they sent home the rebound. It happened. It sucks that it falls on my shoulders, but what are you going to do?"
Lowery, like his coach, said the team wasn't in midseason form, but showed signs of being a strong squad.
"Some passages of play were good, but overall we've got a lot to improve on," said the bruising holding midfielder, who protected the back four all night, save for the one costly slip-up.
The team never looked overmatched or like a club playing against upper-level competition, much like last year when they defeated the Revolution 1-0 in another preseason friendly. The RailHawks were outshot 18 to 11, but they created plenty of quality chances.
Oddly, Schulte and utilityman Caleb Norkus, playing at the top of Rennie's traditional 4-3-3 formation, provided the best attacking threats of the second half with strikers Sallieu Bundu and Andriy Budnyy subbed off. Each had trouble holding up the ball and linking with teammates while experimenting with a 4-4-2.
"We know we can do well in 4-3-3 formation, and we're comfortable in that," Rennie said. "We're just trying it with two strikers and a spare player. To do that takes a little bit of time, so we're just going to persist with it a little more see how it works, see if the right players in there can make it work and see if it makes us more dangerous, but it didn't make us more dangerous tonight. "
Luckily, help is on the way. The team signed Sainey Touray, a 20-year-old Gambian striker who's been on trial with the likes of Arsenal and the New York Red Bull in recent years. He should provide the team a with a new threat up top, if the two goals he scored in quick succession last week against N.C. State are any indication. Touray sat on the sidelines nursing a hamstring injury Saturday, but Rennie says we should see him in the side next week as the team faces friendlies with UNC in Southern Pines on Friday and the Montreal Impact at WakeMed on Saturday.
The team likely will be thankful to resume playing with its usual soccer balls. They used the new MLS Adidas "Jabulani" ball Saturday, the same one that will be booted about in South Africa at the World Cup this summer. The ball often skidded, even on a wet surface, and several players had trouble predicting the pace of passes.
"It really flies fast," said Rennie, whose team had just two days to practice with it. "It moves around a lot."