Soccer, or football, as it's known elsewhere, is called "the world's game." But aside from the most ardent fans, few realize that the Cary-based Carolina RailHawks are a global team.
Like every club populating the lower divisions of U.S. soccer, the roster is a band of aspirants and castoffs. Many play in hopes of greater glory in higher leagues. But most play for the love of the game, earning salaries that often aren't self-sustaining.
As the RailHawks embark on their seventh season, the 20-plus members of the roster hail from across the globe, including Massachusetts, Florida, California and both Washingtons. Of only six North Carolina natives, three were born in the Triangle—Zack Schilawski, Brian Ackley and Justin Willis.
However, like most years, the squad assembled by coach Colin Clarke includes a group of internationals representing eight countries and four continents, from Scotland to South Africa, from the Caribbean to Canada to Colombia. Nicholas Addlery and Julius James, born in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, respectively, have enjoyed long careers in Major League Soccer and Division Two leagues. Colombian Breiner Ortiz begins his second season with the RailHawks. Greg Shields enjoyed a distinguished career in the top tier of Scottish soccer before coming to Carolina in 2009. And 25-year-old Paul Hamilton, the newest RailHawk, is playing for a team outside his native Canada for the first time.
As they and the sampling of stories below show, the players' paths to Cary are as divergent as their ages, languages and cultures. They are bound together under the banner of a single suburban North Carolina team.
After years of wandering the soccer wilderness, winger Tiyiselani Shipalane enjoyed a breakout season last year, scoring nine goals in all competitions, most of them match-winning or equalizing scores. But it was his electrifying performance in the RailHawks' U.S. Open Cup win over the Los Angeles Galaxy last May—coming off the bench to tie the game and then assisting the winning score—that ensconced him in club lore.
Last year was Shipalane's seventh season of professional soccer, all but one in the United States. But his journey to America extends back to his teenage years.
"I was in a school in South Africa that was like a boarding school under the national team brand, SAFA (South African Football Association)," says Shipalane, whose nickname, Ty, is pronounced "Tee."
"It was where some of the best players in South Africa, the likes of Steven Pienaar [a star in England], helped 80 kids. They had some sort of arrangement with the people [in America] who were looking to take kids from South Africa, bring them here and give them a better opportunity education-wise while playing soccer. Fortunately enough, they were looking for two kids who were born between August and October 1985. Out of those 80 kids it was just me and my friend Two-Boys [Gumede, who plays in South Africa]."
What was originally a two-week sojourn of international exhibition matches for the 15-year-old Shipalane led to his parents sending him to live in the U.S. for high school, college and, eventually, pro soccer.
Still, after a dissatisfying 2010 campaign with the RailHawks, a homesick Shipalane returned to South Africa for his first extended visit in nearly 10 years.
"When I went to South Africa [after the 2010 season], I felt like I needed to stay there longer and touch roots with the family," Shipalane recalls. "So I was there for a good nine or 10 months. I played with the University of Pretoria and started to get that love back and enjoyed playing soccer again. Then, I talked to my family and girlfriend and said I need to go back [to America] and give this thing one more try because I felt like I had a lot to offer this game."
By the time Sam Stockley arrived in the U.S. in 2011, the burly defender was already a veteran of 14 seasons in the third and fourth tiers of English football. He spent his youth career in the Southampton club system before signing his first professional contract at age 18 and, by his estimation, appearing in roughly 180 first-team games by age 22.
"I played in England from 8 years old and went through the whole [youth] system. I played for nine clubs in England and got to about [age] 31 or 32. I had done everything in England, I was happy with what happened and I wanted to find something different. So I went out to Hungary, where the team that owned Ferencvárosi was Sheffield United."
When Sheffield United purchased FC New York, a new club in the American third division, Stockley was asked to join. "It was their inaugural season [in 2011], and I said, 'Yeah, I'd love an opportunity to go over there.'"
Stockley spent one ill-fated season with FC New York before moving to Cary. "It was an interesting experience, I'll put it that way," says Stockley, now 35. "For instance, we had one house they called 'the international house.' It was a four-bedroom house and there was eight of us living in there."
The youngest RailHawk came to Cary a year ago as a 17-year-old from Costa Rica, old enough to train with the club but too young to sign a contract. This year, midfielder Jake Beckford makes his official RailHawks debut by way of Deportivo Saprissa, a power in Costa Rican soccer.
"I played in Saprissa, then I went with my Selección U-20s [Costa Rica national team]," says Beckford. "Then my agent talked with coach Colin in March for a tryout. Colin said I played good and I signed, but I couldn't play because I was only 17 years old [and a foreign national]. So last year I only trained with the team, and this year maybe I'll play some."
Beckford also spent last year learning English, aided by two Spanish-speaking teammates, Brian Shriver and the now-departed Amir Lowery. "I think it's hard because I come here alone," Beckford says. "My family is in Costa Rica, and when I come here I don't speak English. Now I speak a little bit. But, it's hard."
Part of the global market for budding soccer talent, Beckford relies on his agent for his next destination, whether it's Costa Rica, remaining in North Carolina or perhaps a chance to train in Germany.
"I miss Costa Rica a little bit, but I play football, I like football and I'm here for football."