One sports a Mohawk, another, lime green shoes, and the other one bears a resemblance to Mr. Clean. It might not seem like it, but Carolina RailHawks Amir Lowery, Mark Schulte and Matt Bobo form a no-nonsense defense trio that gives the Cary squad a platform to pursue a title this season.
"We're kind of coming together," said Schulte, wearing the captain's armband for his second season with the RailHawks, who kick off their first—and hopefully only—campaign in the jury-rigged United States Soccer Federation Second Division on Saturday. "I feel like we're going to be solid defensively, which is what you win championships with."
The reason for Schulte's optimism was clear on the training ground last week. As an angled, lofted ball sailed forward, the captain yelled for Bobo to rise to meet the danger. Better safe than sorry, but the veteran first-team all-league defender, acquired this off-season from the Charleston Battery, was already camped beneath the ball, waiting to thump it forward with his shiny, furrowed brow.
The two men, fierce competitors for a decade, finally find themselves sporting the same colors this year after the Battery refused to join the new North American Soccer League (NASL), and RailHawks defensive MVP Jeremy Tolleson quit at age 27 to become a missionary in Honduras.
"I'm definitely going to miss Jeremy. He's a good friend of mine, a fun cat to play with. He works hard. But Bobo is more than an able replacement," Schulte said.
"Now to play together is kind of a fun little treat. We both have similar ideas about how a defense should be run, so it makes life pretty easy back there, even when a team has a [counter-attacking advantage] on us that we can be strong in our shape."
Bobo, who says he's looking forward to wearing orange, says he knows what to expect from Schulte and hopes the team can build on last year's franchise-best second-place finish in the regular season.
"I think that everybody here realizes that you can't just live on what you did last year," said Bobo, a stout-hearted, steady defender who sports a completely shaved head. (We'll see if he becomes Mr. Clean Sheet as well.)
"[The RailHawks] were good last year for a reason, and it's important that we don't lose that, and when we show up we show up to work," Bobo said. "If we continue to do that as a team and try to take it up a notch, there's nothing we can't do this year."
Coach Martin Rennie is back for a second season after bringing his top players and a one-touch, pressing style from Cleveland last year. Despite losing Tolleson, the Scotsman was able to keep most of the group together this off-season, adding a few well-traveled veterans and prospects to an established group, compared to last year when he gave the squad a near complete makeover.
That's made this preseason—one that's seen the RailHawks spar against ACC teams, the New England Revolution and last year's United Soccer League (USL) first division champs, the Montreal Impact—far different from last year, Rennie said.
"Last year, our preseason was so important to us because it was like a brand new team, and we had to try to create a little bit of momentum right away," said Rennie, who wanted to add aggression up top and build around the inventive central midfielder Daniel Paladini and pacey Guyanese winger Gregory Richardson.
"This year it's more about getting it right for the season; we've added some really quality players. I think the standard is a little higher. I think we haven't got as sharp as we were maybe at this point last season, but I think by the start of the season we'll be even sharper than we were last year."
Despite the RailHawks' well-documented defection from the USL and the team's move for a NASL revival, ironically, this off-season has been about continuity on the field.
"This is the first time in the history of the RailHawks where the team has a lot of players back," said Kupono Low, one of two original Carolina players still with the team for the fourth season. "We have a lot of quick, dynamic, fast, skillful players." (Last Saturday, Low sustained a serious knee injury during a preseason match in Charleston, S.C. He is expected to miss the opening of the season.)
Along with Bobo, a few new faces, a few expansion teams, new Nike balls and Lanzera tops are the only changes fans will see on the field this Saturday when AC St. Louis, led by coach Claude Anelka (brother of striker Nicolas, who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League) and longtime American star Steve Ralston, come to Cary for the season opener.
The new additions were also on display at training, scrimmaging on a field tucked behind the trees and the grass parking lot. Ramak Safi, an Iranian refugee and converted midfielder who latched onto the team as a right back during an open tryout during the winter off-season, surged forward and drilled a low drive into the side netting. Moments later, Marques Davidson, another fresh face in the RailHawks locker room, who signed after eight seasons of Japanese soccer, struck a sweet, looping chip from 25 yards out that dipped dangerously into the goal. Maltese target man Etienne Barbara was in camp for the first time, looking bright despite his 24-hour layover in Rome. (Other players on the team hail from such countries as Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, England, Ukraine, Gambia and Scotland.)
They've come around the world to pepper and defend the Cary nets; now they're hoping the excitement around this summer's World Cup in South Africa and their own winning, fast-moving style of play will inspire RailHawks fans to flock WakeMed Soccer Park this season.
"People probably don't realize that this is one of the best professional soccer teams in the country," Rennie said. "Not the best, not even top five, but it's one of the better teams in the whole country, and it's right in people's backyard."