The Carolina RailHawks knew they couldn't re-sign Brian Shriver. Instead, they have to try to sign the next Brian Shriver.
This Saturday, in their home opener for the 2014 regular season of the North American Soccer League, the RailHawks face the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. It's Carolina's second game in a nine-match spring season before the league takes a six-week break for the FIFA World Cup. The RailHawks resume play mid-July for 18 more games.
Carolina will be without several key contributors from last year. Shriver, last season's leading goal scorer for the entire NASL, parlayed his 2013 success into a lucrative new contract with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Austin da Luz, the team's assist leader and presumptive captain, departed for Orlando City Soccer Club, the USL Pro franchise that will graduate to Major League Soccer in 2015.
An increasingly stratified league forms the backdrop for these departures and a tougher recruitment market in general. Unlike the single entity structure of MLS, the NASL currently comprises 10 independently owned clubs that operate without a mandated salary cap. Last year, two NASL clubs—the New York Cosmos and Minnesota United FC—markedly outspent their competition to accumulate players. Minnesota finished near the bottom of the league; the Cosmos won the NASL championship.
Propelled by the Cosmos' success, two other teams—the Rowdies and San Antonio Scorpions—loosened their purse strings in the offseason. Together, these clubs gobbled up a sizable chunk of player talent, sometimes paying six-figure salaries in a league where it's not unheard of for bench contributors to accept small stipends or room and board as remuneration.
The RailHawks' brass recoils from any suggestion that this economic divide places them at a competitive disadvantage. Still, officials cannot deny its effects.
"We do have the resources to win," says Curt Johnson, entering his fourth season as President of the RailHawks. "But I couldn't look anybody in the eye and say we have the same level of salary resources as the Cosmos, Minnesota, Tampa and San Antonio, because we don't."
Instead, the RailHawks rely more than ever on reputation and relationships to find skilled players. They have eight players under contract with ties to area high schools and colleges. In past years, the RailHawks have inked a significant number of contracts on spec with new signees before preseason camp. This year, the team invited a larger number of unsigned tryouts, with chemistry and performance determining who wound up on the roster.
After years of bouncing from one pro team to another, Tiyi Shipalane, one of the league's most potent offensive threats, returns for his third full season in Carolina. Enzo Martínez, a former UNC Tar Heels standout and MLS draftee, joins the RailHawks full-time after appearing intermittently for Carolina last season on loan from Real Salt Lake. And 35-year-old Kupono Low, the lone RailHawk remaining from the 2007 inaugural season, begins his eighth season with the club.
The RailHawks' most significant offseason acquisition was Jun Marques Davidson, one of the most accurate passers in MLS, who played for Carolina in 2010 before eventually following former manager Martin Rennie to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Released after two seasons as a Whitecaps regular, Davidson was lured back to Carolina, in part, by his long relationship with Dewan Bader, former assistant coach to Rennie and current assistant to manager Colin Clarke.
"I had other options," Davidson says, "but right after the MLS season ended, Dewan contacted me—and throughout the offseason, he contacted me constantly—to interest me in coming back to Carolina. As a player, you always want to feel needed, so that's one of the biggest reasons why I came here."
Asked about the RailHawks' continued ability to compete in the NASL, Clarke pauses before regaining his confident countenance.
"I know we're going to be able to compete," he says. "We've got our own strengths here that attract players. Our facility and coaching staff are second to none in this league. We've got people who played here or lived here who want to be back here. They know they're going to get treated as professionals. That goes a long way, because believe it or not, with a lot of players, it's not just about the money."
"And at the end of the day," he continues, "Minnesota, Cosmos and the others ... they can only afford so many slots."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Greasing the rails"