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.
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK The Bulls’ homestand continues with another four-game series against a representative from the North Division.
Tonight under cloudy skies in come the Rochester Red Wings, who are a game above .500 but in fifth place in the loaded division.
The Bulls won three of four against the Red Wings in their earlier series on the road.
Lance Pendleton (4-4, 4.24) will go for the Bulls tonight against Esmerling Vasquez (3-4, 3.38).
Durham takes the lead early, holding on for a 7-4 win.
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON The second half of the season has been good to the Carolina Mudcats so far, and tonight they’ll look to clinch a series against the first-half Southern Division champion Winston-Salem Dash.
Tonight, Joseph Colon will make his Mudcats debut while Justin Collop (7-2, 3.98) will go for the Dash.
It isn’t Colon’s or the Mudcats’ night, as they go down easily in a fight-marred 7-0 loss.
EMBASSY SUITES/CARY It’s the largest event of its kind in the nation, this Tenth Annual Pigskin Preview of the Bill Dooley Triangle/East Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.
And of course it helps that there are five Division I football programs between Orange and Pitt counties.
And unfortunately the event’s 78-year-old namesake was ill and unable to attend.
But the coaches entertained a wide array of questions from emcee Don Shea at a packed Thursday luncheon event as they all get ready for their season openers.
As usual, everybody is looking to get better.
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK One win to stop a seven-game losing streak has gotten the Durham Bulls back to above .500 at home (24-23) and to within 10 games of a playoff spot.
Tonight the Bulls will take on Ryne Sandberg’s club in the third of a four-game set, with steady battler Matt Torra (8-6, 4.22) taking on Pat Misch (7-10, 4.50).
Sparked by the bottom of the order Durham escapes with its second straight win, prevailing 6-4 to take the lead in the teams’ season series.
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK — The Durham Bulls got themselves into a big hole with a rough road trip, and tonight they’ll look for a way to begin climbing out.
And the Bulls come into the contest 10½ games out of the nearest playoff spot.
The Bulls will send Jim Paduch (4-7, 5.45) to the hill against the IronPigs’ Scott Elarton (5-7, 5.21).
Tonight Paduch is good enough for the win and his teammates help him offensively in an 8-6 victory that ends the streak.
“That was a little like our defense,” Clarke deadpanned about the scattershot pyrotechnics. “All over the place.”
The last time the Strikers faced the RailHawks at WakeMed Soccer Park on May 2, the teams also played to a 3-3 tie, paced by a RailHawk brace, after one side overcame a 3-1 deficit with two second half goals. However, while the Strikers came from behind two months ago, this time it was the RailHawks that netted two goals in the final five minutes—including Mike Palacio’s second score and first assist of the match—to salvage a point.
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK It’s the second game of a short two-game series with the Norfolk Tides, and the Bulls are looking for a win in their last chance to play at home in quite a while.
Taking the hill for the Bulls will be lefty Alex Torres (3-3, 6.52), who has had plenty of ups and downs this season. Tommy Hunter (1-0, 1.29) will pitch for Norfolk.
DURHAM BULLS ATHLETIC PARK The Durham Bulls seem to be on the road most years on July 4, but tonight they’ll host the Norfolk Tides in the opener of a two-game set before they hit the road again.
Matt Joyce, who was with the Bulls in 2009 when they won the Triple-A National Championship, is with the Bulls on Major League rehab.
Jim Paduch (4-6, 5.31) will pitch for Durham tonight against the Tides’ Jason Berken (1-2, 2.99).
Reid Brignac homers, doubles and singles for four RBI as the Bulls win 8-2 before a monster crowd of 11,117.
In between, the Carolina RailHawks returned to their recent winning form, defeating the Atlanta Silverbacks 2-1 and spoiling the debut of interim Silverbacks manager Eric Wynalda. A brace by Nick Zimmerman, both goals coming five minutes into each half, was the difference-maker in a game that Carolina dominated for long stretches yet scrambled late to avoid what would have been a disappointing draw.
Thankfully, the match also avoided the truncated fate of the RailHawks’ last two home games against Atlanta. On April 14, this season’s home opener was halted in stoppage time after the fourth official was pushed to the ground during a touchline altercation. And last July, Carolina earned a weather-shortened victory when the match was abandoned in the 50th minute after three lightning delays.