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Monday, August 15, 2011

Carolina RailHawks encounter turbulence as they enter NASL stretch run

Posted by Google on Mon, Aug 15, 2011 at 10:00 AM

The rockets’ red glare of July 3, 2011 now seems like a distant flicker for the Carolina RailHawks. It was Independence Day weekend that the RailHawks downed rival Montreal Impact 2-0 to win their amazing 10th consecutive match. The post-game atmosphere assumed an especially celebratory air, with fans gathered alongside players on the pitch as fireworks exploded against the nighttime Cary sky. Manager Martin Rennie and team president Curt Johnson shared cheerful conversation. Team captain Brad Rusin surveyed the setting wearing a noticeable look of contentment.

Two days later, Rusin would be gone, bound for HB Køge of Denmark’s top division. And over the coming month, the team would become enveloped by rumors regarding other players possibly departing for greener pitches, including leading scorers Etienne Barbara and Pablo Campos. Then last Tuesday, Rennie was announced as the next head coach of Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps effective at the end of this season, capping weeks of speculation about possible job offers from Montreal and elsewhere.

The RailHawks’ most important fortnight thus far this season got off to an inauspicious start Saturday night, as Carolina fell to the Puerto Rico Islanders 2-0 in Bayamón. It was Carolina’s second straight defeat, the first time they have lost consecutive games this year.

The RailHawks now return to Cary for two matches this week at WakeMed Soccer Park, Wednesday, Aug. 17 against the NSC Minnesota Stars and Saturday, Aug. 20 versus the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, the only other clubs besides Puerto Rico to defeat Carolina this year. Then on Aug. 27, Carolina travels to Atlanta to face the cellar-dwelling Silverbacks for the final time in 2011.

Since Rusin’s departure, the Railhawks are 2-3-1, winning only their two home matches during that span. With eight games remaining in the regular season, the RailHawks’ once insurmountable lead atop the NASL table has shrunk to a six-point advantage over the buoyant Islanders, who have won five of their last six matches and lost only once in 11 games. Yet, this run by the Islanders follows a stretch during May and June in which Puerto Rico dropped four of six NASL matches.

In other words, it is an eternal truth that all sports teams face streaks and slumps over a season’s grind. In many ways, the RailHawks are now confronting the injurious end of the double-edged sword forged by their stellar early season success. When a team wins 10 in a row, losing two straight can seem like a calamity.

Still, several lingering concerns are contributing to the RailHawks’ current swoon.

Where’s Greg Shields when you need him? — The departure of Rusin, a statuesque defender who was also a key component to offensive set pieces, cannot be underestimated. However, the impact of his loss is accentuated by the RailHawks’ season-long lack of depth along a backline that has also seen Kupono Low and John Krause suspended one match each for yellow card accumulation. And the versatile Devon McKenney, who has already missed four games this season due to injury, succumbed to a hurt ankle Saturday in Puerto Rico that may further sideline him.

Twenty-three year old Cory Miller has played admirably at center back in Rusin’s stead. However, Carolina has no natural backup full back, with midfielders Floyd Franks and Cory Elenio filling in at right back on the frequent occasions McKenney is asked to shift elsewhere along the defending third.

Yes, Carolina has allowed the fewest goals (18) of any team in the NASL. But, they have given up a goal during the last five minutes of regulation in all four losses, including three game-winners during stoppage time. And, the tying goals in their two draws with NSC Minnesota and FC Edmonton came in the 66th and 76th minutes, respectively. [To boot, they’ve also surrendered goals beyond the 80-minute mark in four wins.] That’s the sign of a tired defense.

Offense — Yes, I said offense. Although multi-goal games are a luxury in soccer, the RailHawks failed to achieve that feat just three times in their first 14 matches. In the six games since July 3, however, Carolina netted more than one goal only in their 4-1 shellacking of FC Edmonton.

Carolina has relied heavily on the one-two scoring punch of Barbara and Campos (Allan Russell is and always was a capable backup). In the pre-season, however, Rennie ballyhooed a three-man striker rotation that was to include Grenadian international Kithson Bain, who suffered a season-ending knee injury before playing a single minute for the RailHawks.

Last weekend’s Puerto Rico result produced two significant observations: 1) Rennie did not start Campos for a reason; and 2) the RailHawks are a significantly lesser scoring threat with only one true striker in the lineup. Moreover, the threat of injury together with opponents’ increased knowledge of how to defend Barbara and Campos necessitates an alternate scoring option.

Familiarity, thy name is NASL — Regardless of whether it’s the NFL, ACC or EPL, it’s difficult for any team to defeat another three or more times in the same season. Many of the concerns listed above boil down to the fact that NASL sides play each other four times in the regular season. In a game in which preparation is paramount and familiarity a great equalizer, it’s not surprising that clubs are figuring out how compete against the RailHawks the third or fourth time around. This is especially true when combined with the inherent difficulties of playing on the road, where all four of Carolina’s recent losses/draw have taken place.

Halloween Fireworks — Anyone who doesn’t believe that the siren song of playing at a higher level of soccer cannot affect team chemistry need only observe the Montreal Impact, which assembled a roster loaded with talent on the cusp of their entry into MLS yet may not qualify for the NASL playoffs.

Even should Carolina awaken from any MLS daydreaming, the best way to address the team’s persistent concerns is late-season loan or free agent acquisition(s) prior the NASL’s Sept. 9 roster freeze date. It’s an option Rennie has used each of his first two seasons in Carolina: Richmond Kickers striker Matthew Delicate was brought in for the 2009 late stretch, and the triumvirate of McKenney, Daniel Woolard and Tom Heinemann fueled the last year’s late-season surge.

Carolina signed Tony McManus last week, adding to the team’s already stocked stable of midfielders. However, the front and rear third are the areas most in need of shoring up.

Discounting financial or contractual impediments, potential striker candidates include Delicate, who scored 10 goals for Richmond this year, second best in USL Pro. Or perhaps Andriy Budnyy and Sainey Touray, two ex-RailHawks ranked among the top 10 goal and points leaders in USL Pro.

There’s also Jhonny Arteaga, a 24-year-old forward for FC New York who led all of D3 in points (27) and goals scored (13), along with netting a hat trick in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup against the Western Mass Pioneers. An added advantage to Arteaga is that his USL Pro season is over, unlike the others who begin the playoffs next weekend.

Finally, Rennie’s new affiliation with the Vancouver Whitecaps positions Carolina for a late-season loan involving a reservist for the Whitecaps or another MLS club, similar to Montreal, who recently acquired the Portland Timbers’ Ryan Pore, New York Red Bulls’ Greg Sutton and Seattle Sounders’ Miguel Montano on loan.

However you diagnose the Carolina RailHawks’ current malady, an infusion of added talent could be just the cure for what ails them. Otherwise, the NASL championship finals - which wrap up two nights before Halloween - might not be as joyous as that last holiday celebration in early July.

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