This wholesale roster replenishment stands in marked contrast to a year ago, when the RailHawks had only two players under contract when Colin Clarke was announced as the team’s new manager following the departure of Martin Rennie. Indeed, team president Curt Johnson said at the time that a new emphasis in player personnel going forward would be signing more players to contracts that include club options for additional seasons, in contrast to the closed, short-term contracts often employed during Rennie’s tenure at Carolina.
“Being able to bring back a core group of the players is an important piece for our plans in 2013,” Clarke said through a team statement. “With the new league format, having stability and consistency in the roster will give us the opportunity to get off to a fast start.”
Exercising club options does not preclude any player from exploring other options, including Zimmerman, Franks, Shipalane and da Luz, who have all previously spent time in MLS. However, the option does allow Carolina the right to seek some form of compensation in exchange for relinquishing a player’s 2013 contractual rights. Moreover, exercising a club option does not necessarily guarantee that the player will end up being on the 2013 roster: one of the two players on the RailHawks’ roster when Clarke was hired was defender Cory Miller, who was released during training camp.
Clarke also said that the team was still working to resign other key members of last year’s squad. Team officials would not disclose who they were still attempting to resign, nor which player options, if any, the club declined to exercise.
Peterson worked for NFL Europe from 1991-2000 in various capacities, including general manager of the Amsterdam Admirals, before eventually becoming league president. While with NFL Europe, Peterson also worked with future Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber, who left the NFL to take the reins at MLS in 1999. Peterson then spent six years as special vice president for AEG in Los Angeles, where he developed the bulk of his background with American soccer.
While at AEG, he served as managing director for the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., home of the AEG-owned LA Galaxy, and he served on the MLS Board of Governors. And for those David Beckham-to-NY Cosmos conspiracists out there, Peterson helped oversee many of AEG’s sport properties during his time with the company, including the David Beckham Academy.
Less auspiciously, Peterson served as chief operating officer for the ill-fated United Football League from January 2010 through October 2011. As the league tottered on the brink of eventual insolvency, Peterson filed a lawsuit against the league seeking more than $110,000 in unpaid wages, an action that remains pending in Duval County, Fla.
Peterson’s ties to MLS and Garber should provide some insight and, indeed, solace for those anxiously looking at this hiring as a harbinger of the NASL’s posture regarding future relations with MLS. The NASL is in a key phase of its development, with three expansion franchises—the Cosmos and startup clubs in Loudon County, Va. and Ottawa, Ontario—poised to join the eight-member league over the next months. Meanwhile, Peterson says he intends to hit the ground running by visiting each of the member clubs, including the Carolina RailHawks.
Click here to read the NASL's official announcement.
While Tampa Bay sported the same starting XI as last Saturday, the RailHawks made three changes. Greg Shields’ fractured ribs were evidently not as serious as Jordan Graye’s groin injury suffered last weekend, so Shields returned to right back. Gale Agbossoumonde got the nod in place of Richmond Kickers loanee Henry Kalungi, who was away on international call up for Uganda. And Orlando City loanee Matt Luzunaris was penciled in over Jason Garey.
The changes paid quick dividends in the 14th minute. After a sure shot from the Rowdies’ Luke Mulholland careened off the crossbar, it triggered a RailHawks counterattack that ended with Floyd Franks playing a through ball ahead to Luzunaris. The striker slotted the ball past NASL Best XI goalkeeper Jeff Attinella to draw the aggregate score even.
Four minutes later, Carolina went ahead when Ty Shipalane won a race with Attinella to a bounding ball near the top of the box. Shipalane poked the orb ahead and it trickled into the netting to put Carolina ahead 3-2.
A few more chances would come Carolina’s way, notably another Shipalane chip in the 33rd minute that flared wide left. But the next goal went to Tampa Bay after Shipalane was whistled for a penalty for a take down just inside the box. Midfielder Shane Hill took and buried the penalty kick to draw the clubs even on aggregate entering intermission.
In the 54th minute, a cross from Kupono Low off the left wing found a leaping Luzunaris, but he directed his point-blank header right of goal. With the RailHawks’ defense being misdirected at will, the Rowdies took the lead in the 65th minute when Mike Ambersley jumped on one of countless loose balls in the box, slamming it out of the scrum and past RailHawks goalkeeper Ray Burse.
An Amir Lowery header in the 81st off a RailHawks’ corner appeared destined for net until Stuart Campbell cleared away the threat with millimeters to spare. Three minutes later, the Rowdies seemed to put the game away when a grounder off the right wing from Keith Savage navigated its way past Carolina’s defenders and onto Mulholland’s waiting foot. His shot was deflected by Burse, but the England native lept on the rebound and completed the score to put Tampa Bay up by two.
A handball penalty against Tampa Bay in the 86th minute allowed Nick Zimmerman—an NASL Best XI teammate of Attinella and Mulholland—to convert his own PK and draw the RailHawks within a goal. But 5-4 would be where the scoring would stand, as the RailHawks fall in the league semifinals for the second consecutive season.
In many ways, the result was an encapsulation of the RailHawks’ 2012 campaign: flashes of offensive potency—punctuated by goals from Zimmerman and Shipalane—undercut by an erratic, inadequate defense.
Tampa Bay will have to wait until tomorrow’s semifinal finale between the San Antonio Scorpions and Minnesota Stars to determine who they will face in the NASL finals beginning next weekend. As for the RailHawks, a roller-coaster season ends without the championship that first-year manager Colin Clarke announced he aimed to deliver during the press conference announcing his hiring last December.
Four times the Carolina RailHawks faced the Tampa Bay Rowdies during the 2012 NASL regular season, and four times the teams walked off the pitch after 90 minutes having finished where they started: a tie score. That’s not to say there were not incidents of supremacy exercised by one side or the other. The Rowdies outplayed the RailHawks during their 1-1 draw in St. Petersburg on April 18, outshooting Carolina 22-10. Tampa Bay outshot Carolina by 12 in Cary on August 4 but trailed by two goals going into the 86th minute, when two late strikes by the Rowdies rendered a 3-3 final. Still, most of the matchups felt like the nil-nil draw two weeks ago, during which neither side—comprised as they both were with a smattering of reservists—differentiated themselves.
Thus, it was a wonder to witness the rejuvenated RailHawks—unbeaten over their latest five matches and only one loss over their last nine—dominate the Rowdies during the opening half of Saturday’s clash at WakeMed Soccer Park, the first leg of the NASL playoff semifinals series that will conclude next week in Florida. Tampa Bay managed much of the possession but saw any venture towards goal thwarted by a suddenly stingy RailHawks defense, resulting in a meager two shots, neither on target. Meanwhile, the duo of Brian Shriver and Ty Shipalane combined for eight of Carolina’s nine first-half shots, launching numerous sorties into the attacking third.
However, style points don’t equal goals, and none of the RailHawks' frequent forays found the net. And despite eight more team chances in the second stanza, the game ended in another distinctive fashion: a victory…for the Rowdies, 2-1.
Second was yet another Ty Shipalane showcase. Now firmly ensconced in the RailHawks' starting XI, the South African added a brace to his growing list of seasonal exploits as he paced Carolina to a 3-1 NASL playoff victory over the Strikers.
Before the 2012 second season begins, however, it’s worth looking back at the year’s worth of memorable soccer already generated by this cast of RailHawks. Most of these highlights (or lowlights, in a few instances) are whole games, and some are individual achievements. But in a season full of ups and downs (followed by more ups and downs), they’re all the product of a team that continues to surprise its supporters.
So, it was a night for reservists and erstwhile regulars on both teams to get another run. For the RailHawks, Brian Ackley, Austin Da Luz and Breiner Ortiz, all coming off injuries and diminished playing opportunities, received their first starts in weeks. Middle Creek High and CASL product Nick Millington along with loanees Luke Sassano and Matt Luzunaris got their first starts as RailHawks. John Krause and Jamie Finch made cameo returns to the back line. Wakefield High and N.C. State grad Justin Willis made his NASL debut, coming on in the 86th minute.
The Rowdies also rested a number of key personnel, including Stuart Campbell, Luke Mulholland and Mike Ambersley. And, defender Andres Arango was suspended due to yellow card accumulation
It was even a night for old adversaries like RailHawks’ manager Colin Clarke and Rowdies’ gaffer Ricky Hill to catch up, commensurating at length on the field during pregame warmups. Perhaps they were comparing coaching notes, or perhaps they were recalling their English playing days when Clarke was suiting up for Southampton and Hill was on the tail end of a 12-year stint with Luton Town. Or as Clarke called it, “that era when the shorts were very tight and the hair was a little longer than what it is now.”
The final result was a scoreless, foul-filled draw, the first 0-0 home tie since Sept. 11, 2010 against the Portland Timbers. Both clubs attempted 13 shots each but were whistled for a whopping 38 total fouls (24 by Tampa Bay and 14 by Carolina). Tampa’s best scoring chance came in the 4th minute, when Rowdies’ forward Carl Cort muscled past Krause for a 1-v-1 with goalkeeper Ray Burse. However, Burse smothered Cort’s sure shot, just one of five acrobatic saves for the RailHawks keeper.
With the start of the NASL playoffs just over two weeks away, teams are finalizing their rosters in advance of today’s 5 p.m. roster freeze deadline. Today, the RailHawks announced a trio of signings in advance of this season's stretch run: Matt Luzunaris, Jordan Graye and Henry Kalungi.
Luzunaris, a 23-year-old striker, joins on loan from Orlando City S.C., where he appeared in 18 matches this season and netted nine goals. Before joining Orlando, Luzunaris spent time in Austria and with the San Jose Earthquakes. Graye, a former North Carolina Tar Heel defender, spent two seasons in MLS and trialed with the RailHawks this preseason, appearing in the second half of the friendly win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. The 24-year-old Kalungi, also a defender, is a Ugandan national who joins via loan from the Richmond Kickers of USL Pro.
These signings are in addition to midfielder Luke Sassano, formerly of Sporting KC, who made his RailHawks debut as a substitute during the Edmonton match on Wednesday.
However, these announcements are tempered by the curious news that the RailHawks’ other late-season addition, Konrad Warzycha, had been recalled by Sporting KC from his loan to Carolina. Warzycha, who only joined the RailHawks on Aug. 28, played 18 minutes for Carolina last Saturday against San Antonio after coming on as a second-half substitute at right back for an injured Greg Shields.
I spoke to Johnson about the Warzycha recall. Our discussion also touched on a variety of topics, including the team’s on-field performance and morale, as well as the split-season format adopted by the NASL for the 2013 season.
Indeed, the RailHawks had every expectation they could avenge the 1-0 loss to San Antonio back on April 28. Carolina came in on a three-game winning streak, including road wins at Atlanta and, most notably, Puerto Rico. The team has been displaying aggressive, positive soccer entering the season’s end stretch, and it held self-declared aspirations of not only going unbeaten for the rest of the regular season but perhaps making a run at the top spot in the NASL table.
Unfortunately, the affect and energy of the RailHawks side that finally took the field following a 90-minute weather delay (the third such this season in Cary) was not of a team looking to compensate for a one-goal loss in April but one still petrified of the side that trounced them 8-0 a little over a month ago in San Antonio. Consequently, April’s result remained intake as the Scorpions again downed the RailHawks 1-0 off an 84th minute goal from Jeff Cunningham.
While I agree with both concerns, particularly the lack of a two-leg final, the practical answer to both criticisms are probably the same: TV and travel. Holding a one-game final would be an easier, more practical package for potential television partners as opposed to trying to sell them on (or buy) two games a week apart. Moreover, a perennial problem with prolonged playoffs at the lower divisions of U.S. soccer are travel costs, particularly travel that must be arranged and purchased on short notice when airfares can be highest. Cutting the postseason to a single game eliminates those short-term costs for all but one team. Moreover, knowing the site of the championship final months in advance allows potential media partners, league officials, referees and even fans to plan for that location. Moreover, if the winner of the Fall session clinches their "title" several weeks before the end of that session, they can begin to arrange travel plans then as opposed to potentially having to wait until the week before the final to determine the team with the best overall record and, thus, the host site.
There's one more oddity this format could create: it's possible that the team with the best overall record over the entire year may not be able to participate in the championship final if it doesn't win either individual session.
In advance of tomorrow morning's self-described "major announcement" from the North American Soccer League, the Puerto Rico Islanders appear to have jumped the gun by posting the league's press release of the news, dated for Wednesday, Sept. 5, on their club's website.
In the premature posting—which has since been taken down—the NASL announces that beginning next season, the regular season will be divided into two parts, a spring and fall championship. The spring session will run from late March or early April until Thursday July 4. After roughly a one-month break, which clubs can spend as they see fit (including scheduling exhibitions, friendlies, etc.), the fall session will begin in late July or early August and run through November 2. Each session will comprise a round-robin schedule, during which each NASL club will face every other club both home and away.
The weekend following the end of the fall session, the winners of each competition will face off in a one-game league championship match, being billed the Soccer Bowl, for the right to be crowned the NASL's 2013 champion.
“Our Scheduling Sub-Committee arrived at this recommendation after an exhaustive review of a number of alternatives,” said a statement from NASL Commissioner David Downs, “and the new format takes into consideration a variety of factors including fan and player comfort in our many warm-weather cities." "But the bottom line,” Downs added, “is that we believe this new competitive format will bring more excitement and meaning to each of our regular season matches for all of our teams throughout the year.”
Soccer observers will note that this new regular season format is largely patterned after the Apertura and Clausura tournaments now held in many Latin American football leagues. According to the press release, the month-long, mid-season break is designed to coincide with the international transfer window open throughout Europe, Latin America and North America. One additional benefit for Southeast U.S. soccer fans will be avoiding competitive matches during the bulk of July, when erratic weather changes forced delays during several matches in Carolina and elsewhere this year.
Many who expected more momentous news from the league may shrug off this announcement. However, it is an interesting, innovative revamping of the league's schedule in a way that places increased emphasis on the regular season and less on a prolonged, costly and overly inclusive playoff format.