Kick in the Grass: Carolina RailHawks host LA Galaxy next Tuesday, but will you have a seat?

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Bermuda sod being laid at WakeMed Soccer Stadium last Monday, June 16 - PHOTO BY NEIL MORRIS
  • Photo by Neil Morris
  • Bermuda sod being laid at WakeMed Soccer Stadium last Monday, June 16
With their 2-1 win over Arizona United SC last night, the LA Galaxy advanced to the fifth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Their next opponent is a familiar interleague foe: the Carolina RailHawks.

The RailHawks have hosted the Galaxy in Open Cup competition two straight years. And for two straight years, the RailHawks have defeated the Galaxy, eliminating them from the tournament. But unlike 2012 and 2013, when the Galaxy games set RailHawks attendance records, this year’s clash will be a decidedly more intimate affair.

The RailHawks-Galaxy match next Tuesday, June 24 will not be played in the nearly 10,000-seat WakeMed Soccer Stadium. Instead, it will be played on the adjacent Koka Booth Stadium, more commonly known as Field 2. The change stems from a change of sod currently taking place in the main stadium, a changeover from ryegrass to Bermuda grass that must occur now and requires several weeks to mature and become playable.

According to RailHawks president Curt Johnson, the timing of the resodding was a collaborative decision made between the RailHawks' front office and the Town of Cary, which manages and maintains the soccer park’s facilities and grounds.

“We looked at this months ago, when the best window to [resod] would be,” Johnson explains. “Obviously you’re going to pick a window when you’re not sure whether you’ll have a game or not. There wasn’t an alternative to not do the resod; per the Town of Cary, it had to be done. So we picked the time that seemed best at the time.”

At that time, the RailHawks knew their final home of the NASL spring season would be May 31. They also expected to host a friendly against Puebla FC in early July and needed the main stadium ready for a Mexican club match that traditionally draws large crowds. Thus, in speaking to RailHawks officials and a Town of Cary groundskeeper, the main stadium sod changeover was originally scheduled for the first week of June.

However, US Soccer announced in late April that the fourth round of the Open Cup, when all Major League Soccer (MLS) teams enter the tournament, would be played June 10-18. Knowing the probability that the RailHawks would advance past the third round, club officials realized Carolina had a literal coin flip chance that it would host a MLS team in the Open Cup in mid-June. The decision was then made to play the odds and delay the main stadium resodding until after the potential fourth round match. Indeed, the RailHawks did end up hosting—and defeating—Chivas USA of MLS in the fourth round last Saturday.

On June 3, Carolina learned that it might host a potential fifth round match against the LA Galaxy-Arizona United winner. However, waiting until after the Chivas match left only one window to changeover the turf before the July 6 Puebla friendly and the encroaching summer heat burned off the ryegrass.

According to Johnson, after learning of their right to host the fifth round match, perhaps against the Galaxy, “we went back and talked about it [with the Town of Cary] again, just to do a sanity check and make sure is there anything we can do. But financially, it’s way too expensive for us and the Town.”

Essentially, the only option available was laying a thicker cut of Bermuda sod on the main stadium. It’s the sort of sod commonly laid down in rapid fashion by large stadiums equipped with permanent artificial turf for high-profile friendlies, World Cup qualifying matches and other international competitions. However, the cost difference between the thinner and thicker cuts of Bermuda sod is approximately $250,000, an amount far in excess of the increased revenue generated by hosting the Galaxy game in the main stadium as opposed to Field 2.

“It was a five second conversation when I saw the number,” Johnson says. “It was just way too expensive.”

Johnson said a variety of venue options were considered. The club reached out to representatives at UNC, NC State and Duke, but none of their soccer facilities were available. One option that wasn’t considered, however, was moving the match outside the area.

“We weren’t going to move it out of the Triangle,” Johnson said. “That wasn’t an option. We want to have [the game] here so our local fans can see the game.”
Koka Booth Stadium, aka Field 2, at WakeMed Soccer Park - PHOTO BY NEIL MORRIS
  • Photo by Neil Morris
  • Koka Booth Stadium, aka Field 2, at WakeMed Soccer Park

Koka Booth Stadium has a permanent seating capacity of just over 500. However, the RailHawks front office is procuring temporary bleachers to erect along the open west side of the field. The club also plans to sell seating in the grass embankments bracketing the east bleachers and in the northern end zone.

Earlier this week, club officials could not provide an exact seating capacity for next Tuesday’s game, but they estimate it will be between 2,000 and 3,000. Tickets expect to designate a specific seating section (east bleachers, west bleachers or one of the grass areas). However, there will not be assigned seating within each section. 309 Depot, the RailHawks’ supporters group, will occupy the north end zone area.

The RailHawks are also working to set up a temporary press box for the match.

“It’s a bear to host the game in that venue,” Johnson says. “But it would have been a bear to host it in any venue other than our regular stadium.”

The most unfortunate side effect of this change in venue will be the potential decreased attendance and revenue for another Open Cup game against MLS competition. Using an average single game ticket price of 16 dollars, a loss in attendance of 5,000 results in lost revenue of $80,000. That does not take into account associated decreases in parking and concession fees, to say nothing of the trickle down effect that comes with attracting new people and media to such high profile games. And, of course, there's the ebb in home field advantage for the RailHawks, who can't have the energy of 8,000 fans who have previously cheered them onto victory over the Galaxy.

Still, the existing Field 2 turf is immaculate, so there shouldn't be a problem with field condition. And credit to the RailHawks for applying to host the match despite the fact that hosting a fourth round U.S. Open Cup match requires paying US Soccer a minimum flat fee of at least $18,000.

“We still have a wonderful facility, and Koka Booth Stadium has hosted ACC tournament games and training sessions for club and national teams,” Johnson says. “The surface is better than 99 percent of the other surface around the country. And we wanted to host the game here in front of our home fans.”

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