by Neil Morris
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.
You’re not in Kansas anymore
In an article published at www.mlssoccer.com, Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes left the clear impression that at least part of his club’s reasoning for recalling Warzycha’s loan was him being played out of position at right back.
“You can't force their hand on anything,” Vermes was quoted about Carolina coach Colin Clarke's decision to use Warzycha on the outside. “They're going to use him how they want to use him. But he plays best in central defense. That's a good position for him right now, so I'm glad he's back with us now, to be honest with you.”
Johnson said the decision by Sporting KC to initiate the loan recall caught him off-guard.
“Honestly, it was a surprise that they recalled him, in particular because he had only been with us for a short period of time and he had played in the previous game. I was disappointed.”
Johnson said that while he had spoken with Vermes about their decision, he would not divulge the specifics of their conversation.
“The timing was surprising, because Konrad was certainly going to get more opportunities with us playing four games in 12 days,” he said. “I can’t get into the specifics as to why because I’m not 100 percent sure of all the different things that may be going on.”
While acknowledging the implications of Vermes’ of comments, Johnson said that Warzycha’s insertion at right back against San Antonio was born of necessity, not choice.
“Konrad did play out of position, but we only had 18 players on the roster on game night, and Cory Elenio was a scratch and our other right back [Greg Shields] cracked his ribs with about 18 minutes to go,” Johnson explained. “So, you look at your bench and say who’s best suited in this moment to play against the top team in the league at that position. Well, we felt like Konrad was that person. It wasn't a perfect scenario, but it as a necessary one.”
Johnson said that the signing of Sassano, who had already been in RailHawks’ camp for a couple of weeks prior to Warzcha’s departure, was unrelated to the loan recall. The delay in reaching a loan agreement with Sassano came because although he had been released by Sporting KC in June, his Major League Soccer contract—valued at $81,000 per year, per www.mlsplayers.org—was guaranteed, and Sassano understandably wanted to make sure he could play without forfeiting his salary.
Preparing for the push
RailHawks fans know more than anyone the value of late-season player acquisitions. The club's push to the 2010 USSF D2 Pro League finals, notably their thrilling semifinals victory over the Montreal Impact, was aided by the addition of forward Tom Heinemann on loan from the Charleston Battery, as well as Daniel Woolard, David Hayes and Devon McKenney to shore up the back line.
Johnson said the players now bringing brought in are part of an overarching search for the right formula to address the team’s “biggest shortcoming.”
“You’ve seen it; we’ve all seen it,” he said. “We’ve been pretty consistent on the offensive end in terms of producing goals. We’ve certainly scored enough to have a better record. But team defense has not been good enough.”
The schizophrenic course of the RailHawks’ season, coupled with chemistry issues that can inevitably arise when players are added to the rotation late-season, begs consideration of the team’s overall morale.
“Nothing is ever perfect, and when team morale is perfect you worry that you’ve got a bunch of guys who are just too nice to each other,” Johnson said. “Every team I’ve ever been involved with has had their fair share of disagreements—maybe a little dustup here or there in practice, very passionate discussions about what the right formation is for the group—and I don’t think this group is any different. You’ve got a mix of people; some are more vocal than others. But I’ve enjoyed this group. They’ve been fantastic out in the community, and not because we’ve had to twist arms but because they genuinely like being around each other and around the fans.”
Time to split
Johnson is the RailHawks’ representative on the NASL’s Board of Governors, which recently approved a new split-regular season for 2013. The new format, similar to the Apertura and Clausura employed in some Central and South American countries, will feature two round-robin tournaments, one in the spring and one in the fall, separated by a month-long break in July. The winners of each tournament will meet in early October in the so-called Soccer Bowl to decide the overall league champion.
Johnson says the positives of the new format far outweigh any drawbacks.
“The positives to me include … getting in line with the international calendar. The break in the season will help in attracting international games because we have more schedule certainty, and we don’t have congestion in there so we can focus more on selling and marketing an international exhibition. It will help us in years where there are major international competitions, like the World Cup and the Olympics, in terms of avoiding key dates during those tournaments. Then you’ve got the length of the season, which continues to differentiate us from USL, which clearly we still compete with for players. Our season is going to be so much longer than theirs, so players can earn money longer and develop over a longer period of time.
“It gives a great opportunity to have a showpiece event—Soccer Bowl—that can be planned over many months and make that an incredible marquee event for the league in whichever city is hosting it. Perhaps most importantly, it puts a premium on every single regular season game. I think you’ll see the intensity level of these games at a higher pitch throughout the year.”
While Johnson will miss the excitement of hosting playoff games, he says there are practical considerations that carry greater sway.
“I just got off the phone with our ad agency in terms of placing media for a possible home game or multiple home games in [this year’s] playoffs,” he said, “and I’ll tell you it’s hard to plan when literally we may not know until 9-10 o’clock on Sept. 22 that we’re hosting a home playoff game the following Saturday.”
Despite the opinions expressed by many observers (including this one), Johnson insists this change is not a cost-cutting measure designed to shed playoff travel expenses.
“That’s come up a lot, and it’s honestly the opposite. It’s actually a larger investment to do it the way we’re doing it because of the fact that the season’s longer. Now we’re basically going to be paying players from March 1 to all the way, guaranteed, until the end of October. That’s six weeks difference of housing, payroll, workers’ comp, payroll tax, etc.
“[Cost savings] really did not enter into the conversation. It was more about what’s best for the league, what’s best for the development of players, what’s best for the international ties … that sort of thing.”
Johnson says it’s his understanding that the winners of both the spring and fall tournaments will be separately honored as such, silverware and all. He also defended the decision to allow the spring champion to host the Soccer Bowl, as well as making the bowl a single-game contest instead of a two-leg series.
“It’s so the game can be in a home stadium of one of the participants—that’s important—and so there’s enough lead time that it can be the best possible event from a spectator standpoint, from a sponsor standpoint, from a national television opportunity,” he said. “You factor in the likelihood of a national television opportunity, that certainty makes it so much more valuable for the TV partners.
“If you know three or four months in advance that you’re going to be hosting it … we could be selling Soccer Bowl by July 5. That allows a lot more certainty that there’s going to be a great crowd there and a lot of sponsor support.”
The RailHawks return to WakeMed Soccer Park on September 22 for their regular season finale against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.