by Neil Morris
Following the Carolina RailHawks’ collapse to complete the North American Soccer League (NASL) Spring season, a month-long seasonal change came just in time. Carolina’s Spring included a 12-game regular season plus four midweek matches in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup that left an injury-depleted RailHawks roster staggering into San Antonio on July 4. The team ultimately needed just a single point that night to win the Spring season title and host the NASL Soccer Bowl championship in November. Instead, Carolina suffered only its second defeat of the regular season, ceding the Spring title to the Atlanta Silverbacks.
The RailHawks and its supporters rode a euphoric wave through record-setting attendances, comeback victories and two wins over MLS competition to reach the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup. But, over a ten-day finale, the RailHawks were ousted from the Open Cup in Salt Lake City, failed to defeat Atlanta in Cary to clinch the Spring title, and then were stung by the San Antonio Scorpions.
“I felt we were the best team in the first 12 games,” says RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “But at the end of the day we didn’t get the job done.”
Clarke and his cast of RailHawks took a week off to rest and recover from the gut-punching end to an otherwise exciting Spring. Now, Carolina embarks on the NASL Fall season on Saturday, August 3 when it hosts FC Edmonton at WakeMed Soccer Park.
“There’s a hunger out there in training,” Clarke declares. “And they’re disappointed. Now we want to go and put ourselves back in that position.”
In the meantime, there have been a few seasonal changes. Back in full training are Ty Shipalane, the playmaker who tore his hamstring and missed the final two games of the regular season, and Breiner Ortiz, who hasn’t played this season due to injuries but looks to figure prominently for the RailHawks this Fall. Carolina also added midfielder Luciano Delbono in late June. Delbono played college soccer at Wake Forest and was selected by the Montreal Impact in last January’s MLS Supplemental Draft.
Meanwhile, gone are Jonathan Greenfield and Eddie Ababio, whose contracts were not extended into the Fall season. Clarke says Nick Zimmerman's rehabilitation is ahead of schedule and believes last year's leading scorer will return at some stage this Fall, although he cannot predict when.
Also unknown is the availability of Nick Addlery, who has missed all season with a recurring knee injury. Addlery's status remains uncertain.
“Nick has still had some swelling on his knee,” Clarke says. “He went to the doctor about two days ago and had fluid taken off the knee. So, he’ll be back in training Monday and push on, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
However, the biggest news, announced yesterday, was that Carolina agreed to trade Floyd Franks to Minnesota United FC for midfielder Bryan Arguez. Brought to Carolina by former head coach Martin Rennie, Franks had been with the RailHawks since 2010, save for a four-month stint with Rennie’s Vancouver Whitecaps in early 2012. Franks was the RailHawks’ team captain during the Spring season.
Clarke confesses the decision was difficult.
“It’s never easy,” Clarke says. “It’s not the nice part of the job. He’s someone who has been here and been part of this squad and you get to know. But, at the end of the day it’s a business, and we decided that was the right move for us.”
The trade’s genesis came after the conclusion of the Spring season, an even more disappointing and tumultuous one for Minnesota United, which finished next-to-last in the league table. According to Clarke, Arguez was one of two players Minnesota floated as possible trade bait.
“They came to us,” Clarke explains. “They were after a trade. Nothing specific as far as who. We sat down, they asked us who was available on the roster, I told them who was not available and everybody else we could talk about. Franks is one of the names they came back with.”
While Franks has earned his reputation as a hard-nosed, tenacious holding midfielder, Clarke says his performance thus far this year made him potentially expendable.
“I made Floyd captain to try to bring more out of him, and to elevate his game, presence and personality,” Clarke says. “And I don’t think he was able to do that leadership-wise. I didn't think he had a great season playing-wise.”
On the other hand, Arguez is a young player Clarke has coveted for some time. Arguez was taken in the first round of the 2007 MLS SuperDraft by DC United, but he never made a first-team appearance for the team. Clarke attempted to sign Arguez prior to this season, but Carolina was outbid by free-spending Minnesota.
“It was a tough decision for him last year,” Clarke remembers. “I believe he felt Minnesota had the money to build something great, so he went in that direction. I can understand that. Obviously, it didn’t work out for him. So, I know we were very close to getting him last year, so he’s happy to be coming here.”
One question is why the RailHawks would trade one proven holding midfielder for another who missed a substantial portion of this season due to injuries. In response, Clarke cites Arguez’s durability during his time with FC Edmonton in 2012 and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2011.
Clarke also points out other factors that came into play in making the trade decision.
“Arguez is younger, he’s 24,” Clarke explains. “I think he’s a kid that can improve. He’s a player that’s bounced around a little bit and not been able to find a home where he’s happy and get into an environment where he can improve and fulfill his potential.
“He’s a player that’s always played as more of a sitting, holding midfielder. I think he’s got the ability to get forward and score goals. He can get around the field and cover ground very quickly. I believe he can finish and score goals, and that’s something he needs to believe and learn. He can become more of a two-way midfielder instead of someone who just sits in front of the back four. And, he’s a very good passer, very good in possession and doesn’t give the ball away very often.”
Clarke says the club is in discussions to possibly bring in one or more additional players for the Fall, including Enzo Martinez, whose imminent return the RailHawks previewed on Twitter late this afternoon.
Part of Clarke’s mid-season assessment is that while the RailHawks achieved many come-from-behind results and led the league in scoring, it fell short when it came to converting their copious chances in the attacking third and taking the fight to their opponents from the opening whistle.
“We won a lot of games here late in exciting circumstances, coming back,” Clarke says. “The big thing is in 12 games, in only two did we score the first goal. We were always chasing teams. That’s something we've got to put right.”