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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Kick in the Grass: Carolina RailHawks host LA Galaxy next Tuesday, but will you have a seat?

Posted by on Thu, Jun 19, 2014 at 9:02 AM

Bermuda sod being laid at WakeMed Soccer Stadium last Monday, June 16 - PHOTO BY NEIL MORRIS
  • Photo by Neil Morris
  • Bermuda sod being laid at WakeMed Soccer Stadium last Monday, June 16
With their 2-1 win over Arizona United SC last night, the LA Galaxy advanced to the fifth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Their next opponent is a familiar interleague foe: the Carolina RailHawks.

The RailHawks have hosted the Galaxy in Open Cup competition two straight years. And for two straight years, the RailHawks have defeated the Galaxy, eliminating them from the tournament. But unlike 2012 and 2013, when the Galaxy games set RailHawks attendance records, this year’s clash will be a decidedly more intimate affair.

The RailHawks-Galaxy match next Tuesday, June 24 will not be played in the nearly 10,000-seat WakeMed Soccer Stadium. Instead, it will be played on the adjacent Koka Booth Stadium, more commonly known as Field 2. The change stems from a change of sod currently taking place in the main stadium, a changeover from ryegrass to Bermuda grass that must occur now and requires several weeks to mature and become playable.

According to RailHawks president Curt Johnson, the timing of the resodding was a collaborative decision made between the RailHawks' front office and the Town of Cary, which manages and maintains the soccer park’s facilities and grounds.

“We looked at this months ago, when the best window to [resod] would be,” Johnson explains. “Obviously you’re going to pick a window when you’re not sure whether you’ll have a game or not. There wasn’t an alternative to not do the resod; per the Town of Cary, it had to be done. So we picked the time that seemed best at the time.”

At that time, the RailHawks knew their final home of the NASL spring season would be May 31. They also expected to host a friendly against Puebla FC in early July and needed the main stadium ready for a Mexican club match that traditionally draws large crowds. Thus, in speaking to RailHawks officials and a Town of Cary groundskeeper, the main stadium sod changeover was originally scheduled for the first week of June.

However, US Soccer announced in late April that the fourth round of the Open Cup, when all Major League Soccer (MLS) teams enter the tournament, would be played June 10-18. Knowing the probability that the RailHawks would advance past the third round, club officials realized Carolina had a literal coin flip chance that it would host a MLS team in the Open Cup in mid-June. The decision was then made to play the odds and delay the main stadium resodding until after the potential fourth round match. Indeed, the RailHawks did end up hosting—and defeating—Chivas USA of MLS in the fourth round last Saturday.

On June 3, Carolina learned that it might host a potential fifth round match against the LA Galaxy-Arizona United winner. However, waiting until after the Chivas match left only one window to changeover the turf before the July 6 Puebla friendly and the encroaching summer heat burned off the ryegrass.

According to Johnson, after learning of their right to host the fifth round match, perhaps against the Galaxy, “we went back and talked about it [with the Town of Cary] again, just to do a sanity check and make sure is there anything we can do. But financially, it’s way too expensive for us and the Town.”

Essentially, the only option available was laying a thicker cut of Bermuda sod on the main stadium. It’s the sort of sod commonly laid down in rapid fashion by large stadiums equipped with permanent artificial turf for high-profile friendlies, World Cup qualifying matches and other international competitions. However, the cost difference between the thinner and thicker cuts of Bermuda sod is approximately $250,000, an amount far in excess of the increased revenue generated by hosting the Galaxy game in the main stadium as opposed to Field 2.

“It was a five second conversation when I saw the number,” Johnson says. “It was just way too expensive.”

Johnson said a variety of venue options were considered. The club reached out to representatives at UNC, NC State and Duke, but none of their soccer facilities were available. One option that wasn’t considered, however, was moving the match outside the area.

“We weren’t going to move it out of the Triangle,” Johnson said. “That wasn’t an option. We want to have [the game] here so our local fans can see the game.”
Koka Booth Stadium, aka Field 2, at WakeMed Soccer Park - PHOTO BY NEIL MORRIS
  • Photo by Neil Morris
  • Koka Booth Stadium, aka Field 2, at WakeMed Soccer Park

Koka Booth Stadium has a permanent seating capacity of just over 500. However, the RailHawks front office is procuring temporary bleachers to erect along the open west side of the field. The club also plans to sell seating in the grass embankments bracketing the east bleachers and in the northern end zone.

Earlier this week, club officials could not provide an exact seating capacity for next Tuesday’s game, but they estimate it will be between 2,000 and 3,000. Tickets expect to designate a specific seating section (east bleachers, west bleachers or one of the grass areas). However, there will not be assigned seating within each section. 309 Depot, the RailHawks’ supporters group, will occupy the north end zone area.

The RailHawks are also working to set up a temporary press box for the match.

“It’s a bear to host the game in that venue,” Johnson says. “But it would have been a bear to host it in any venue other than our regular stadium.”

The most unfortunate side effect of this change in venue will be the potential decreased attendance and revenue for another Open Cup game against MLS competition. Using an average single game ticket price of 16 dollars, a loss in attendance of 5,000 results in lost revenue of $80,000. That does not take into account associated decreases in parking and concession fees, to say nothing of the trickle down effect that comes with attracting new people and media to such high profile games. And, of course, there's the ebb in home field advantage for the RailHawks, who can't have the energy of 8,000 fans who have previously cheered them onto victory over the Galaxy.

Still, the existing Field 2 turf is immaculate, so there shouldn't be a problem with field condition. And credit to the RailHawks for applying to host the match despite the fact that hosting a fourth round U.S. Open Cup match requires paying US Soccer a minimum flat fee of at least $18,000.

“We still have a wonderful facility, and Koka Booth Stadium has hosted ACC tournament games and training sessions for club and national teams,” Johnson says. “The surface is better than 99 percent of the other surface around the country. And we wanted to host the game here in front of our home fans.”
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    Next Tuesday's match won't be played on WakeMed Soccer Stadium, but instead the adjacent Field 2.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Great Scott: Goodwin the newest RailHawks U.S. Open Cup hero as Carolina defeats Chivas USA

Posted by on Sun, Jun 15, 2014 at 2:53 AM

RailHawks goalkeeper Scott Goodwin - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAROLINA RAILHAWKS
  • Photo courtesy of Carolina RailHawks
  • RailHawks goalkeeper Scott Goodwin
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—In soccer, it’s commonly called a penalty shootout. However, the Laws of the Game officially refer to the tiebreaker as “kicks from the penalty mark.” Regardless of the moniker, it’s a construct that’s long been the subject of intense fan debate. Some decry it as a contrived method to determine the winner of a hard-fought match, something akin to deciding a basketball game by a free throw shooting contest or an American football game by alternating 30-yard field goal attempts.

Others point out that after 120 minutes of exhausting play between teams allowed only three substitutions all game, you have to do something to crown a winner when necessary other than wait for the last man standing. Moreover, kicks from the mark aren’t simply a matter of shooting from close range into an empty net. Yes, the kick taker has a significant advantage. But he must also overcome fatigue, nerves and an agile goalkeeper looming between ball and net.

Kicks from the penalty mark were taken Saturday night between the Carolina RailHawks and Chivas USA of Major League Soccer to decide their fourth round tie in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. On one side was Dan Kennedy, the veteran Chivas USA goalkeeper and team captain now in his seventh season with the MLS club. On the other side was Scott Goodwin, the RailHawks’ 23-year-old backup goalkeeper making only his second start since joining the club this season. Goodwin, a former UNC Tar Heels standout, spent last year playing soccer in Iceland before latching onto the RailHawks’ squad.

But after a “shootout” that saw Goodwin make three saves, Kennedy make two, and both teams convert only five of their combined 14 kick attempts, a successful conversion by Daniel Jackson gave the RailHawks a win over Chivas USA 1-1 (3-2 shootout) to advance to the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup.

The win also extends the RailHawks’ home unbeaten streak to 22 games.

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    Goodwin—the former UNC Tar Heels standout—made 11 saves during the run of play, then three more during the penalty shootout.

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Turf burned - FC Edmonton pummels Carolina RailHawks 6-1 to close NASL spring season

Posted by on Sun, Jun 8, 2014 at 9:07 PM

Akira RailHawks can't reach an FC Edmonton goal during the Eddies' 6-1 win over the RailHawks. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NASL.COM
  • Photo courtesy of NASL.com
  • Akira RailHawks can't reach an FC Edmonton goal during the Eddies' 6-1 win over the RailHawks.
WEBCAST—For all the rapturous hosannas heaped on the Carolina RailHawks following their home win last Saturday, their Mr. Hyde side was on acute display this afternoon at Clarke Stadium in Edmonton. It’s a lunacy of silver linings to note that the RailHawks doubled their 2014 road goal output during today’s 6-1 shellacking at the feet/heads of FC Edmonton. It’s sobering reality to point out that the Eddies’ goal total today alone exceeded their overall 2014 goal output coming into the match (five) by 120 percent.

The die was cast a mere 37 seconds in when Daryl Fordyce maneuvered through a porous RailHawks defense and slipped a shot past goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald. for the early lead. Edmonton doubled the margin in the 13th when some comically bad set piece defending off an Eddies free kick supplied Tomi Ameobi with a header goal and 2-0 lead.

Lance Laing—who torched the RailHawks defenders along the left wing all game—extended the lead to 3-0 with seeing-eye skimmer in the 31st minute. Fordyce added insult to injury in the 43rd minute, as a hopeful hit from distance proved helpful once it deflected off the hip of RailHawks defender Austen King, causing the orb to loop over the head of an already misdirected Fitzgerald for a 4-0 halftime lead.

Carolina got a goal back in the 74th minute. Mike Grella, who squandered two shots in the box in the first half, delivered a cross from the left side of the box that found its way across Edmonton keeper John Smits to Connor Tobin standing goalmouth. Tobin deposited the sitter to cut the lead to 4-1.

However, Edmonton reclaimed the advantage a minute later. Driving past a step-slow Daniel Scott, Fordyce half-volleyed home a cross into the box to secure his hat trick and a 5-1 lead.

The final blow came during added time when an Edmonton long ball into the box was swatted down by King, capping an especially egregious day for the RailHawks center back. Sadi Jalali was given the honors of converting the PK to account for the final score.

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    The RailHawks finish the NASL's spring season fourth in the league standings.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

The return of the prodigal goalscorer: Carolina RailHawks defeat Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-0, extend 21 home match unbeaten streak

Posted by on Sun, Jun 1, 2014 at 1:12 AM

Brian Shriver of the Tampa Bay Rowdies departs the pitch following their 2-0 loss to the Carolina RailHawks in Cary, N.C. - NEIL MORRIS
  • Neil Morris
  • Brian Shriver of the Tampa Bay Rowdies departs the pitch following their 2-0 loss to the Carolina RailHawks in Cary, N.C.
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—After Brian Shriver scored two goals for the Carolina RailHawks in their last game of 2013, giving him a personal- and league-best 15 for the year, the NASL Golden Boot winner alluded to his future plans.

“I love it here, and hopefully things work out,” the out-of-contract Shriver said at the time. “But in the end it is a business, so we’ll see what happens.”

Quite understandably, what happened was that Shriver took the money and ran to Tampa Bay, signing a lucrative contract with the newly flush Rowdies. However, 2014 hasn’t proven as fruitful for Shriver thus far. He has only one goal this season and missed the Rowdies’ last three regular season matches due to a right ankle sprain.

Saturday evening, Shriver made his first trip back at WakeMed Soccer Park since that 2013 finale last November. For pregame tailgating, the fatted calf took patty form. And while some former teammates were happy to renew acquaintances, most of Shriver’s ex-RailHawks brothers were undoubtedly aching to get one over on the prodigal goalscorer.

Indeed, not Shriver’s second-half appearance, nor Tampa Bay’s possession advantage, nor the Rowdies’ 21 shots were enough to upend the Carolina RailHawks home ground dominance. Carolina defeated the Rowdies 2-0 before 7,856 fans, a new RailHawks regular season attendance record. The win extends the RailHawks' home unbeaten streak to 21 games.

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    The RailHawks win took place before a regular season record attendance of 7,856.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Carolina RailHawks clip Charlotte Eagles 2-0 to advance in U.S. Open Cup

Posted by on Thu, May 29, 2014 at 12:21 AM

Railhawks_Logo.jpg
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—The last time the Carolina RailHawks faced the Charlotte Eagles in a competitive soccer match was the first round of the 2010 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The RailHawks won that game 1-0 at WakeMed Soccer Park.

Four years later, another U.S. Open Cup clash between the in-state avian rivals produced a similar outcome. The RailHawks clipped the Eagles 2-0 Wednesday evening in Cary, paced by two first-half goals from Nazmi Albadawi and Jun Marques Davidson. Carolina now advances to the third round of the 2014 Open Cup and will host Chivas USA of Major League Soccer on June 14.

The win also extends the RailHawks' home unbeaten streak to 20 games.

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    The win also extends the RailHawks' home unbeaten streak to 20 games.

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dr. Jekyll, I presume? Carolina RailHawks cage Silverbacks 2-0, extend home unbeaten streak to 19 games

Posted by on Sun, May 18, 2014 at 1:51 AM

Connor Tobin meets the media after the Carolina RailHawks' 2-0 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks on May 17 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. - NEIL MORRIS
  • Neil Morris
  • Connor Tobin meets the media after the Carolina RailHawks' 2-0 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks on May 17 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—Perhaps in no sport is home field advantage more pronounced than soccer. In England, it’s not uncommon for certain teams to go decades without winning a match on a perennial competitor’s home ground. But throughout the course of virtually any season, a team will win some on the road and lose some at home.

Then there’s the Carolina RailHawks. The home versus road dichotomy Carolina has developed dating back to the end of its 2012 season is both pronounced and jarring. With its 2-0 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks Saturday evening before a season-high attendance of 5,527 at WakeMed Soccer Park, the RailHawks have now stretched their home unbeaten streak to 19 games over all competitions (league and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matches). Indeed, Carolina has won 17 of those 19 matches and drawn only two. The last time the RailHawks lost a competitive game at home was a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rowdies on October 12, 2012 in the first leg of the NASL playoffs.

On the other hand, Carolina has won only one of its last 19 road matches, that being a 1-0 victory over Minnesota United FC last October. Of the other 18 games, Carolina has lost 10 and drawn eight. Moreover, beginning with the 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake in the U.S. Open Cup last June, the RailHawks have lost nine of their last 12 road games.

This year, the divide is even sharper inside the numbers. Over the RailHawks’ three home wins thus far this season, Carolina has outscored its opponents 7-1. Meanwhile, over its two losses and one draw on the road, the RailHawks have been outscored 8-1.

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    All teams win some on the road and lose some at home. Then there's the Carolina RailHawks.

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

"Balls to the wall': Carolina RailHawks man the ramparts for 1-0 win over New York Cosmos

Posted by on Sun, May 4, 2014 at 2:58 AM

Tiyi Shipalane of the Carolina RailHawks - FILE PHOTO BY JOANNAH IRVIN
  • File photo by Joannah Irvin
  • Tiyi Shipalane of the Carolina RailHawks
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/ CARY—After the Carolina RailHawks were thrashed 4-nil by the expansion boots of Ottawa Fury FC a mere week ago, the last thing anybody expected was that the RailHawks could rely on their defense for a win against the defending NASL champion New York Cosmos. But even after losing two players to bookings and another to injury, the RailHawks did just that, shutting out New York while riding a first-half goal from Ty Shipalane to a 1-0 win over the Cosmos.

It was a tale of two halves. It took only 12 minutes for the RailHawks’ counterattacking strategy to emerge. Carolina’s Cesar Elizondo pounced on an errant dribble by New York’s Danny Szetela in the Cosmos’ attacking third and—in keeping with Kentucky Derby Saturday—was off to the races. Elizondo outran Szetela, juked past a helpless Marcos Senna, and then laid the ball off to a streaking Shipalane. Shipalane’s first shot was blocked by Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, but the rebound found Shipalane’s foot and his second attempt was true.

“It was a great counterattack by Cesar,” Shipalane said. “He was able to beat three or four guys, and then I was able to keep up with him and make sure I was in the right spot staying onside. I shot and the goalkeeper made a great save, but I was able to stay with it. It wasn’t an easy finish, but I was able to do it.”

The RailHawks’ counterattack would wreak havoc for the Cosmos the entire first half. Indeed, Shipalane nearly doubled the score in the 16th minute when his angled shot inside the box caromed off the crossbar.

Meanwhile, Toni Ståhl made his first start at center back for Carolina, with Connor Tobin moving to right back. When Tobin picked up an early yellow card, the Cosmos—usually in the form of Jemal Johnson—proceeded to launch sorties in his direction that felt bound to eventually find their intended target.

Senna left the game at intermission after complaining of tightness in his hamstring. But it was another halftime adjustment that had a bigger impact on the remainder of the match. Cognizant of the space Elizondo and Shipalane were being given to run free, Cosmos manager Gio Savarese altered his team’s formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2. He also shifted his back line and midfield higher to pressure the RailHawks and cut down their space.

“I think Carolina was effective in taking advantage of the space we gave them at the beginning of the game,” Savarese said. “They didn’t create many chances, but every time we gave them that space in the first half they looked dangerous. After we fixed it, then I think there was no more game. There was one team on the pitch, we just couldn’t finish. We couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net.”

However, the most significant shift in strategy came once the head official’s cards started flying. After a couple of yellow card appetizers to start the second half, referee Jorge Gonzalez sent off Cosmos Sebastián Guenzatti after a kerfuffle with RailHawk Kupono Low ended with Guenzatti landing a hand to Low’s head. Incidentally, Low was also shown a yellow card for reasons yet unexplained. More on that in a moment …

The RailHawks’ man advantage lasted only seven minutes. In the 63rd, Gonzalez showed Tobin his second yellow for a slide tackle in which Tobin was first to the ball but Ayoze took a blatant tumble, then lept to his feet gesturing for a card from Gonzalez. The referee obliged and sent Tobin off.

Five minutes later, matters got worse for Carolina. A reckless tackle by Low took the legs out from under Szetela. The referee played the advantage, and the play ended with a low cross into goal being cleared out by a sliding Low for a Cosmos corner. A New York player went to ground, so when Gonzalez rushed in to show Low his second yellow card and send him off, the Cosmos argued that a penalty kick should be awarded. Indeed, Savarese was still protesting the absence of a PK during his postgame press conference.

However, video replay clearly shows that as the Cosmos players were appealing for a penalty after the play, Gonzalez gestured back to midfield, indicating the booking was for Low’s previous tackle. Regardless, the RailHawks were now down to nine players, one fewer than New York.

More protestations emerged in the 71st, when Shipalane dribbled around Maurer and attempted to drive the end line toward goal. Ayoze, already carrying a yellow card, stuck out a leg and took down Shipalane. Gonzalez whistled a foul and ran in, clearly reaching for the front shirt pocket containing his dogeared cards. However, he suddenly pulled his hand away, thereby declining to send off Ayoze.

After the match, no one was happy with the way the game was officiated. Savarese was still griping about the lack of a PK. Meanwhile, the RailHawks felt hard done-by two players being sent off.

“A lot of craziness with three red cards,” RailHawks manager Colin Clarke observed. “I didn’t think it was warranted at all. I felt some of the decisions from the officials were a little bizarre at times.”

Ståhl, who was a resolute rock at center back, was more direct.

“I’m sorry, but the refereeing was absolutely horrendous today,” Stahl said. “I’ve never been in such a crazy game with so many red cards just thrown out. It’s a shame that we lost two players and the Cosmos lost one, as well. I thought they were weak cards both ways.”

Meanwhile, Shipalane claimed the team trained for such contingencies all week.

“When we play against the Cosmos, anything can happen with them being a big name in this league,” Shipalane said. “A lot of calls go their way, so we just have to keep focused and whatever the ref does, that’s his job. We have no control over that.”

What was left facing the RailHawks was 20 minutes of trying to stave off the Cosmos’ 10-man attack using only nine players. So, Carolina adopted a bunker formation, one Clarke said his team actually practiced during training this week in the wake of last weekend’s defensive debacle in Ottawa.

“The way we played was two banks of four, as we call it,” Clarke explained. “We do a lot of that in training for defensive shape. We worked on it this week because I didn’t think our defensive shape was good enough last week in Ottawa.”

Ståhl had a less clinical description.

“It’s nothing but balls to the wall. Just park the bus and hope for the best.”

New York’s best opportunity came in the 77th minute when they fired two short range shots inside the box. The first shot from striker Mads Stokkelien was blocked by reflexive RailHawks goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, who had an outstanding night. The second was deflected away by center back Daniel Scott.

However, the drama was far from over. During the announced four minutes of stoppage time, RailHawks defensive sub Uriah Bentick went down and had to leave the game with a leg injury. With no substitutions remaining, Carolina was now down to eight players. Moreover, the officials sent word that stoppage time was being lengthened to five minutes, and then allowed extra time to continue for a total of seven minutes.

Finally, satisfied with the havoc he had wrought, Gonzalez whistled full time to the frustrated delight of 4,066 RailHawks partisans. The win extends Carolina’s home unbeaten streak to 18 games.

By the numbers, the statistics were lopsided in favor of New York. The Cosmos (2-0-2, 6 pts.) outshot Carolina 22-7; New York held 69 percent of the possession; and by game’s end, New York was playing with two more players on the pitch than the RailHawks.

But ultimately, the only number that matters is one, as in one goal. Carolina (2-1-1, 7 pts.) now sits alone in third place in the NASL spring table, one point behind Fort Lauderdale. However, a tough away match at San Antonio next Saturday looms, a road trip complicated by the fact that the RailHawks will apparently be without Low, Tobin and perhaps Bentick, further depleting the team’s already thin back line.

For now, however, Carolina will savor not only a win against the much vaunted Cosmos, but also the way they earned victory.

“There was no way the Cosmos were going to score tonight,” Clarke said. “You could stay out there another hour. You could see it in the players’ eyes. This was a battle they were determined to win.”
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    “There was no way the Cosmos were going to score tonight,” RailHawks coach Colin Clarke said. "This was a battle they were determined to win.”

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

RailHawk resurrection: Carolina steamrolls Strikers 4-1 to extend home unbeaten streak to 17 games

Posted by on Sun, Apr 20, 2014 at 8:10 AM

Carolina RailHawks manager Colin Clarke speaks to the press after his team's 4-1 win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. - NEIL MORRIS
  • Neil Morris
  • Carolina RailHawks manager Colin Clarke speaks to the press after his team's 4-1 win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
WAKEMED SOCCER PARK / CARY—At the outset of his postgame press conference, Zack Schilawski stared down for several seconds at the match stat sheet resting on the media room podium.

“You scored two goals,” cracked one reporter, breaking the extended silence.

Schilawski cackled. “Thanks, I couldn't believe it. I had to make sure.”

Indeed, the most believable aspect to the Carolina RailHawks’ 4-1 win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in Cary Saturday evening was that it extended the RailHawks’ extraordinary unbeaten streak at WakeMed Soccer Park to 17 games. Weather, a short preseason and an Easter weekend kept the 2014 home opener attendance to a relatively modest 4,007. However, they too received the full faith and credit that Carolina has provided their ticket holders for over a year now.

However, the RailHawks (1-0-1)—a team that struggled to score a lone goal at Indy Eleven last weekend—raced out to four goals this weekend. Fort Lauderdale (1-1-0)—a team that kept a clean sheet against Ottawa Fury FC last weekend—gave up four scores to Carolina. And Schilawski—the former NCAA champion and first-round MLS SuperDraftee who managed just three goals for Carolina in all of 2013—has already scored three goals in two games this year.

“Everybody’s asking where the goals are coming from this year,” said RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “I’d love it to be Zack Schilawski scoring 15 or 20 goals.”

Schilawski might have some competition from teammate Enzo Martinez, who also notched a brace against the Strikers Saturday night. Like Schilawski, Martinez is a former member of an NCAA championship team and a first-round MLS draft pick. Tonight's performance continues the reclamation of a player relishing his return to attack after spending his two seasons as a reservist for Real Salt Lake floundering about as a holding midfielder.

Still, for a while it appeared scoring even one goal would prove difficult against a Strikers defense that came ready to hunker down and defend their fort.

“I think they did a great job of coming in and sitting behind,” Martinez said. “They were behind the ball and really compact in the middle. They made things really hard for us.”

With the RailHawks dominating early possession but not mustering any shots, it finally fell to César Elizondo to stir the pot. Stationed on the left wing throughout the match, Elizondo rounded two Fort Lauderdale defenders and blazed a trail toward goal in the 26st minute. Once inside the box, Elizondo was pushed to ground by midfielder Chris Nurse, and the referee pointed to the spot. Martinez calmly converted the PK to give Carolina the 1-0 lead.

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    “You scored two goals,” cracked one reporter. "Thanks," Schilawski cackled. "I couldn't believe it."

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Different game, different team: Carolina RailHawks 2014 NASL preview

Posted by on Thu, Apr 10, 2014 at 5:03 PM

César Elizondo streaks ahead for the Carolina RailHawks against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers last September at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary - PHOTO BY JOANNAH IRVIN
  • Photo by Joannah Irvin
  • César Elizondo streaks ahead for the Carolina RailHawks against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers last September at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary

No more wondering about roster additions. No more pining for boffo friendlies. And no more ice storms cancelling preseason scrimmages. Ready or not, the Carolina RailHawks open their 2014 season this weekend.

The RailHawks travel to Indianapolis this Saturday to kick off their 2014 North American Soccer League (NASL) regular season. This year, a nine-game spring season will determine one berth in the newly minted four-team postseason playoffs. The RailHawks certainly face an uphill climb as one of the five NASL teams with only four homes games in the spring, one of three teams that both open and close the spring season on the road, and the only U.S.-based NASL team required to travel to both Edmonton and Ottawa for away matches.

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    Manager Colin Clarke: “It’s going to be a fun ride. It always is."

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson discusses league expansion, playoffs, MLS, paid match streaming and other topics in advance of 2014 regular season kickoff

Posted by on Tue, Apr 8, 2014 at 11:49 PM

Bill Peterson in January 2013 during his first visit to WakeMed Soccer Park after becoming NASL commissioner. - CAROLINA RAILHAWKS
  • Carolina RailHawks
  • Bill Peterson in January 2013 during his first visit to WakeMed Soccer Park after becoming NASL commissioner.
On Tuesday, Bill Peterson, embarking on his second season as commissioner of the North American Soccer League (NASL), held a couple of media conference calls in advance of the 2014 NASL regular season, which kicks off this weekend. Next week, Peterson will visit North Carolina when he attends a Carolina RailHawks fan forum planned for Wednesday, April 16 at 6 p.m. in Raleigh. In the meantime, the RailHawks open their 2014 campaign this Saturday when they visit Indianapolis to take on Indy Eleven in the debut match for that new expansion club. Indy Eleven anticipates a sellout crowd of approximately 11,000.

Both during his prepared statements and extended question-and-answer sessions, Peterson elaborated on the league’s topics du jour, from present and future expansion, to the league's new four-team playoff (yes, he used that word) format, to the news about Major League Soccer (MLS) apparently expanding to Atlanta.

Not surprisingly, Peterson said that the “outlook for the league is very, very bright.” He said the excitement about the impending debut of expansion clubs in Indianapolis and Ottawa will segue into an “edge-of-your-seat” spring season that finds teams playing nine games each to determine one berth in the league’s new championship format.

Peterson teased a few coming announcements, including, “a fairly significant commercial announcement in the coming days [that’s] one of our first league sponsorship deals with a great brand company.” He also said the league will “also have a broadcast partnership that we’ll make further announcement about later this week.” Peterson didn’t provide any details on this topic, although any suggestion this means an impending television broadcast deal was scuttled later when the commissioner said that, “our next focus of television is to secure a weekly highlights show on one of the major sports platforms … After that step, we’ll focus on getting a game of the week on a national type of platform, either cable or broadcast.”

Below are the highlights of Peterson’s remarks on particular topics, drawn from both conference calls:

On future NASL expansion:

PETERSON: We continue to look at other cities where we could possibly expand. Our focus is on the Midwest and West. Without going into any specific cities we’re talking to, I will tell you that right now there are a number of robust conversations. We will continue to take our time and make sure we’re securing the right ownership groups in the right cities before we make any final announcements.

Canada is in those plans, and we have discussions ongoing with at least one and sometimes two cities up there. I don’t think anything is imminent, but we have talked with interested ownership parties in a number of cities.

We have evaluated ownerships groups in Las Vegas. We’re not currently speaking with anyone very seriously there. We’ve had conversations throughout California, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and others. I do believe we’ll end up with one or more teams in California sometime in the near future. But trying to handicap expansion is a losing proposition because it’s a long, slow process. There’s a lot of people who have to end up on the same page and understand what it’s going to take to be successful.

Updates on the status of expansion clubs in Northern Virginia and Oklahoma City:

In both cases, basically we’ve gone through an ownership reorganization for completely different reasons. They’re starting to come out of that process, we’re hopeful we’re still on target for 2015 with both clubs. There was a delay in the stadium in Virginia. That led to some other issues among the group that was going to build the stadium. Ultimately, that’s forced [the Virginia Cavalry FC] ownership to consider different options, and that’s the process we’re going through now, as well as reorganizing that ownership group. I hope we’re getting close to finishing that process and will be able to share more information when everything is buttoned up.

Oklahoma City is very simple. It’s a very clear cut ownership reorganization, and the focus now locally is securing the stadium where they’ll play in 2015.

Jacksonville [Armada FC, in Florida], on the other hand, is gangbusters. As you know, I live in the area, and it’s just amazing the reaction they’re getting from everyone, whether its fans or people in the general community. Companies want to sponsor them. They’re going to open up very strong next year, and we expect all three [expansion clubs] to open up next year.

Thoughts on the reported expansion of MLS to Atlanta, currently home to the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks:

There’s no surprise here; I think everyone’s known for some time of [MLS’] intentions in Atlanta. We continue to evaluate what that means. My personal opinion is that Atlanta is a city that would benefit from more than one professional soccer club and may actually raise the awareness and excitement levels throughout the region. I think this could be a good thing for all of us, on and off the field. Having said that, I’m not the owner of the team. [The team’s owners] continue to evaluate their situation. They don’t have to make a decision today; I don’t think [the MLS club] will play before 2017. We do have a long tradition with the Silverbacks and Silverbacks Park … They feel very good about the direction they’re heading.

At some point [the Silverback’ owners] have to decide whether it matters that there’s another club in the Atlanta area. They’re going to think about what type of effect this may have on their commercial sponsorships, their fan base, and on community and government support.

The NASL’s current relationship with MLS:

We really don’t have formal relationships with other leagues in this country. That is, I guess, on purpose. We’re not a developmental league. Having said that, we’re a decentralized league and part of what we contend is the global soccer economy. You see players moving back and forth between the leagues, and that’s healthy. You see a lot of cooperation and discussions at the team level, and that’s healthy. But, they do what they do, and we do what we do, and that’s best for everybody right now. That’s probably the way it’ll stay for some time.

The NASL’s new four-team playoff format instituted for 2014:

It’s a piece to our competition that we think makes our regular season more exciting, not less exciting. Our next goal is to get to 18 clubs … but part of that vision is to maintain the split [regular] season and maintain a single table once we get to 16 or 18 clubs, and also institute a small playoff feature at the end of the season. Basically, the question came down to why wait until we get to 16 clubs, we can do this now.

There are a number of reasons we felt this [playoff format] was beneficial. One, it still maintains a strong reason to play hard and win the spring and fall seasons. At the same time, you’re recognizing teams that played really well over the course of two long seasons, and they get a chance to prove that they’re the best team in the league. We’ll keep the competition at four teams going forward. This is not a way to allow mediocrity into the finals. This was a way to create even more competition.

By awarding the Soccer Bowl hosting rights to the spring season champion last year, it allowed the league to advance plan around the championship site months in advance. That advance determination has been eliminated by this new playoff format. Was any consideration given to preserving that element?

This whole concept was debated for months, and a lot of different models were put forward with a lot of evaluation. At the end of the day, we felt the structure we settled on was a better competitive structure. It may not be the best business structure. I think if we determined our championship location after the spring season, there’s a good chance we’d sell more tickets and get more sponsorship and local support. But, we weren’t sure it would provide the best competitive balance for the clubs. So, it’s a case of doing the right thing. We may have sacrificed some short-term revenues. But it was more important to have the competition line up correctly and get those teams seeded in a manner we felt was reflective of what they earned throughout the season.

Reasons why the NASL decided to implement a paid service for live match streaming this year:

We want to provide all of our fans with all of the action, whether their team is home or away. But that costs money. At this point in our development, we’re not looking at receiving substantial rights fees from any broadcasters. So we’ve got to come up with a model that makes the most sense for everybody where we can provide those match feeds, currently over the Web, while at the same time find a way to help offset some of the cost. Maybe we’re heading in a direction everybody is going to follow one day soon anyway.

It’s also forced our clubs to improve their broadcast quality. So I think the fans who have followed us in the past should be pleasantly surprised when they start to see the improvements in the production and entertainment value of those matches.

The reasons behind the NASL’s recent announcement that it’s moving its league headquarters to New York City:

The New York move was more about efficiency. As we’re starting to grow and develop, you find that you can develop more of those relationships in New York than other places. It’s more about efficiencies in having broadcasters, potential sponsors, agencies and marketing companies all located there. We’ll maintain a small presence in Miami. We have an executive who stays in California. We’ll continue those locations. But everybody else we bring on will be based in New York moving forward.

The seemingly widening player salary imbalance between the NASL’s member clubs:

I suspect salaries for players have increased. The teams are becoming a little more competitive. They’re reaching for slightly better players. That doesn’t always mean you have to pay more money, but sometimes it means you have to pay more money.

I expect to see some margin between what clubs are spending, and as long as we don’t feel there is a competitive disadvantage to what somebody is spending or not spending, then we’ll let the guys go out and participate in the free market system. There’s no indication there’s anything wrong with the system we’re in right now, and there’s no real concern on my part at this time. The clubs are spending within their means, and a lot of the clubs are increasing their revenues and putting that money back into the club.
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    During a couple of Tuesday media conference calls, Peterson elaborated on the league’s topics du jour.

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