Soccer

Out with the old, in with the new: RailHawks embark on hopeful offseason

Posted November 4, 2015

June 6, 2015: Nacho Novo and Ty Shipalane combined for the RailHawks only goal in a tie with Minnesota. Credit: Rob Kinnan-Carolina RailHawks.

Hours after the finale of the Carolina RailHawks’ 2015 regular season last Friday, a mélange of coaches, players, staffers, fans and even the club’s new owner congregated in a downtown Raleigh bar for loquacious libations. The mood was euphoric, a sharp contrast to the pall that hung over WakeMed Soccer Park the preceding five months.

The RailHawks didn’t win a championship. Heck, they didn’t even make the league playoffs. This after-hours party was to celebrate a new beginning, not a congratulatory climax.

Earlier that day, Triangle tech entrepreneur Steve Malik finalized his purchase of the RailHawks from Traffic Sports USA. The team also announced re-signing Tiyi Shipalane, one of the most potent players in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Then Carolina defeated Indy Eleven to close out their regular season and somehow finish sixth in the league standings.

Malik has promised changes off the field, in marketing, attendance, staffing, sponsorship … you name it. But he’s also promised to field a championship-caliber team, and it’s there that the RailHawks have the steepest hill to climb.

RailHawks Rewind

The RailHawks opened the 2015 season with the oldest roster in the NASL, and the rigors of age ultimately overwhelmed the value of experience. An already thin bench—the consequence of a player budget diminishing annually in relation to the league’s top spenders—was further eroded by early injuries to key contributors. Still, the RailHawks managed to finish third in the NASL’s 10-game spring season, with 3 wins, 5 draws and 2 losses.

Then the FIFA scandal enveloped the Hawks, and it’s tempting to hitch the 6-3-11 fall season record that followed to the uncertainty swirling around the team from late May until late October.

Yet in many ways the 2015 Carolina RailHawks season was another iteration of the team’s perennial penchant for truncated success:

  • 2009: Carolina finished second in USL-1 with a 16-7-7 record, but it was bounced in the opening round of the playoffs by the 7th seed Vancouver Whitecaps.
  • 2010: The RailHawks won their conference in the USSF D2 Pro League and advanced through the playoffs to the league’s championship final, where it was defeated by the Puerto Rico Islanders.
  • 2011: Carolina finished with the best record in the NASL’s regular season but was upended by eventual champion NSC Minnesota Stars in a playoffs semifinal penalty shootout at WakeMed Soccer Park.
  • 2012: The RailHawks made the NASL playoffs, where they were defeated again in the semifinals round by eventual champion Tampa Bay Rowdies.
  • 2013: Carolina advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup and finished with the best overall record in the NASL regular season. However, the RailHawks didn’t qualify for the Soccer Bowl championship game—which they would have hosted—after finishing one point behind the Atlanta Silverbacks for the spring season title.
  • 2014: The RailHawks again advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup. However, they finished just two points behind the Fort Lauderdale Strikers for the fourth and final NASL playoffs spot.

That brings us to 2015, when Carolina finished a sizable six points behind the (again) fourth-place Strikers. The RailHawks were actually fourth in the 11-team NASL in goals scored (44) over the 30-game regular season. However, they tied the Jacksonville Armada for second-most goals allowed (49); only the San Antonio Scorpions surrendered more scores (52).

While there was hope Carolina’s older roster would cope with the pressures of road matches, the RailHawks’ home vs. away dichotomy again remained stark. Carolina’s home record was 7-6-2 (W-D-L), and they outscored opponents 28-20 in Cary. On the road, the RailHawks were a putrid 2-3-10 and were outscored 16-29.

However, a more remarkable, revealing statistic suggests that, but for a positionally inadequate roster, Carolina could have remained one of the league’s most competitive teams throughout the year.

The RailHawks played 20 of their 30 games this year with Wes Knight or Steven Miller starting at right back. Knight played every minute of the team’s first 16 games this season before leaving to take a youth soccer academy job in Charlotte. Miller arrived on loan from the USL’s Tulsa Roughnecks late in the season. Both were serviceable, although unremarkable fullbacks.

With Knight or Miller at right back, the RailHawks’ record was 8-7-5 and they outscored opponents 33-22, for an average of 1.1 goals allowed per game. In the 10 games without Knight or Miller at right back—and instead a carousel of other RailHawks playing well out of position—Carolina’s record was 1-1-8 and it was outscored 11-27, an eye-popping average of 2.7 goals allowed per game.

[Incidentally, the RailHawks’ road record with Knight or Miller at right back was 2-2-4; it was 0-1-6 without either at RB. Also, the record with Knight/Miller at right back plus Akira Fitzgerald at goalkeeper was 6-3-2, with Carolina outscoring opponents 21-11 over those 11 games.]

Roster Revamp

Malik has promised an increased player budget, although he hedges on whether he’ll attempt to keep pace with the skyrocketing sums paid by the Rowdies, New York Cosmos and Minnesota United. The new owner’s commitment was promptly revealed with the re-signing of Shipalane, a fan favorite and offensive dynamo coveted by teams across the NASL. The team also ended any idle speculation by announcing that manager Colin Clarke would return next year for his fifth season as the RailHawks’ gaffer.

That said, there’s a temptation for RailHawks fans and coaches to proclaim, “Now we can afford to keep our players.” While that’s wise in certain situations, if the RailHawks want to contend for that elusive championship, the new mindset needs to be, “Now we can afford to sign players we previously could not.”

There figures to be a roster overhaul over the off-season. Judging by their lack of playing time and general squad status late in the season, there are a number of veterans who appear unlikely to return: Mark Anderson, Simone Bracalello, Chris Nurse, Blake Wagner and Bradlee Baladez. The status of Hunter Gilstrap, Daniel Scott and Wells Thompson is presumably tenuous, as well.

Of the rest of the RailHawks, there are three players who should be re-signed if at all possible. The first was Shipalane. Goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald led the league in saves, and he will hopefully remain a RailHawk unless MLS comes calling again. And although 24-year-old midfielder Nazmi Albadawi will spend most of the winter recovering from foot surgery, he’s a developing talent and key attacking option when healthy.

There’s a second tier of players who should be re-signed at the right rate and role. Team captain Connor Tobin had a standout year and clearly has Clarke’s confidence. But Tobin also figures to attract interest from teams throughout the league. It would be great for a healthy Futty Danso to return, even at age 32, if he wants to stay. Austin da Luz definitely wants to stay, and his playmaking abilities and community outreach make him a valuable asset to retain. And Neil Hlavaty appears to have the backing of the coaching staff—his return will likely boil down to his contract and preferences.

Both Kupono Low and Nacho Novo will be 37 by the start of the 2016 season. As the lone remaining RailHawk and a continued contributor, Low should remain for the team’s 10th anniversary. That said, the RailHawks must assemble younger fullback talent. Novo was the team’s leading scorer and third-best in the NASL for 2015, and his presence would be valuable next year only if coupled with other options at forward.

Finally, holding midfielders Alex Pérez and Leo Osaki, both 24 years old, proved their worth late in the season. Pérez is a potential starter, while Osaki is a defensive stopper and dead-ball specialist.

When added to goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre, who remains under contract with the club, that leaves plenty of roster space for new additions during soccer’s version of the hot stove league. After all, training camp less than four months away.

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