Starting with a hard-fought draw against the Puerto Rico Islanders on May 19 and concluding with another tough draw, versus the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on July 7, the RailHawks picked up 17 points in eight games. And in the middle of that was an entertaining U.S. Open Cup run that was punctuated by a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy before 7,939 fans, including those who filled the newly opened north stand.
So head coach Colin Clarke can be forgiven for having a spring in his step after Thursday morning's training session on a training field below the stadium. I was waiting for Floyd Franks, who just rejoined the RailHawks after spending the first half of the season with the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps.
Franks is sort of an unusual player, an upper-level journeyman who has played for a decade as an adult. A native Southerner who moved around states like Alabama and Mississippi as a child, he played college ball at UNC-Charlotte. As a pro, he made 16 appearances in two years with the Chicago Fire, a team that he characterizes as the best he's played on. A year with the Cleveland City Stars followed, where he played under an up-and-coming coach named Martin Rennie. After a year with Denmark's Blokhus (currently in the Danish second division), Franks put in two solid seasons with Carolina, now coached by Rennie.
In Cary, Franks distinguished himself as a jack-of-all-trades and a hard-tackling player who complemented flashier teammates like Etienne Barbara, Josh Gardner, Daniel Paladini and Matt Watson (all of whom have moved on to MLS). He played 50 games over two seasons in Cary, scoring two goals.
When Rennie answered the call to coach the Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS, he brought along assistant coach Paul Ritchie, and former RailHawks Barbara, Watson, Brad Knighton and Jun Marques Davidson. The last RailHawk to join him was Floyd Franks, but on June 28, Franks was the first RailHawk to depart.
In a sense, Franks is in good and plentiful company. Just as Rennie did when he assumed control of the RailHawks before the 2009 season, he has turned over a good portion of the Vancouver roster he inherited. So far, 18 players have been moved off the Whitecaps roster under Rennie, who took control at the end of last season. Among them are such highly regarded players as Jay Nolly, Long Tan, Lee Nguyen and, most recently, French nationals Sébastien Le Toux and Eric Hassli.
For what it's worth, the Whitecaps, who were among the most woeful teams in the MLS last year, are now in fourth place in the Western Conference, well-situated for a playoff berth.
In early July, Franks began training with the RailHawks, and on Wednesday, July 18, the team announced that he'd been signed to a multi-year contract.
I visited WakeMed Soccer Park on Thursday to chat with Franks, but first I encountered Clarke. I asked him about Franks.
"Well, Vancouver released him, and obviously no other MLS team picked him up," Clarke said. "We had him here last year, and it was natural that we'd want him back after we sold him to Vancouver."
How do you see him fitting into this squad?
"He'll fit in very well," Clarke said. "He's a quality player. He can play multiple positions, anywhere on the field. He can play fullback and center back. It's good to have someone of his experience and ability. He's a winner. It's very nice that we can pick up someone of his ability at this time of the year."
Do you expect him to be in the squad Saturday?
"He will be in the squad Saturday, yes."
After Clarke took off, I caught up with Franks. Here's a transcript of our conversation.
Triangle Offense: How long have you been back?
Floyd Franks: About a week and a half. This is my second week.
The weather is a bit different, isn't it?
Considerably, I think the hottest I've played in this year has been 72 degrees. Yesterday [when temperatures hit 90 by 11 a.m.] was a real eye-opener (laughs). For sure. But it's just a process to get used to it and today I feel a lot better.
What did former RailHawks coach Martin Rennie tell you when you signed for him in Vancouver? What were your expectations?
I don't want to get into that, to be honest. I'm probably not in the best mood to talk about it right now. Also, I don't really care anymore—[Rennie] needs to go his own way, we both need to go our own ways. I don't mind talking about it a little bit, but I might balk at a couple of questions.
Sure, I was just curious what the general emotional temperature was with that. Tell us about playing in Vancouver.
It was great. I got along with all the guys. Really good guys, I was happy with the way I played. I've been around long enough to be honest with myself, so regardless of what they tried to tell me, I'm very happy with how I played, the way I handled myself. I was injured, but I was just working back to a place—I'm a hard-working guy, I like to work hard off the field, I like to hit the weight room. But with my back the way it was at the time I wasn't able to do that, but I was just getting to a point where I could push the limit, to where I like to be. And that was the end of it.
Aside from your personal experience, what did you observe about Martin's ability to come in and rebuild a club that had done very poorly the previous year?
He's very good at the mental aspect of things, he's always preaching on that, which is very important after the year they had last year. I think they still had some guys they had last year, you can always find yourself in a position where if you start out with a loss or two, [morale] might go down. It's just a difficult situation to come in. He always preaches that mental stuff a lot—he's always a positive guy. I think it took a couple of wins or favorable results to get the guys going and stuff. I think they're very receptive.
I was wondering how players were responding to him, given his youth and the fact that he was coming from Division 2.
I don't think players are really looking at that. It basically depends on how you perform on the field. If you come in and say the right things, you run a good session and you know what you're talking about, guys will be fine with you.
What's your impression of how the MLS has changed since you were last there [in 2007, with the Chicago Fire]?
The team I was on, Chicago, was really good, very talented [one teammate was Mexican superstar Cuauhtémoc Blanco]. From what I've seen, outside of L.A., in terms of individual development, I wouldn't say there are that many teams that were as good as [the Chicago Fire of several years ago]. Those kinds of teams don't come around often. This time around, I'd say there are more foreigners.
How is that development important?
I don't know. I think it's good for the league but it's less good for U.S. soccer. If you don't have a league where you're playing your own players you don't have enough talent to ... really help our national team, and I think that's pretty important. There's different ways to do it. That's just one man's opinion.
Has Colin told you what he's looking for you to do?
Oh, you know, my normal game in midfield. Obviously I can play right back, but that would only come if something happens to Cory [Elenio], who's been great. I'm pretty versatile.
How do you feel about Cary? You've lived here before, do you feel like you can make yourself at home here?
Oh yeah. I'm very comfortable here. I lived here before. Obviously, after things went down in Vancouver, I was pretty bummed for a few days. But I was glad to have the opportunity to come back here. Good to see the locker room, the guys. The stadium looks great. [Motions to the newly constructed stands.] Just got to get the fans here!
Some of the fans would like to know how [ex-RailHawks] Matt Watson, Etienne Barbara and others are doing and adjusting to reduced playing time?
They're doing well, I think they've got a good attitude about it. I think Etienne's had to battle some injury stuff as well so that's slowed him down a bit. Watty as you know got into some games early in the season and did very well. And Jun [Marques Davidson], of course, has done very well, obviously—he's started almost every game. Guys have done well, and I think they'll continue to do well.
Tonight at 7, the RailHawks return to action versus the Minnesota Stars. The Stars will no doubt be looking to avenge the 5-1 drubbing they received in Cary on June 9. Prior to the game, beginning at 4:45 p.m., the club hosts a pig-picking festival. Visit carolinarailhawks.com for more info.