CARY—Probably the best sign that this year's RailHawks are getting serious was on the brow of today's signing, Marcelo Romero. Visible through his closely shaved hair was a Y-shaped scar—surely evidence of his hard-nosed career in the top divisions of Spain. No doubt goalkeeper Chris McClellan—or another—will find reassurance there.
RailHawks management proudly displayed the 32-year-old holding midfielder to the media Thursday afternoon. Romero indicated that he was on a two-year contract, with only the first guaranteed. When asked what the biggest change would be in playing in America, Romero modestly made the obvious point: In Spain he played alongside (and defended) the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldinho.
Nope, he won't find them here—or even David Beckham, another old adversary, if he succeeds in wriggling out of the devil's bargain he made with the MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Romero, a native of Montevideo, Uruguay, brings an enviable pedigree to Cary, as RailHawks coach Martin Rennie noted. "Players around the world dream of playing in the top leagues, and of representing their countries in the World Cup. In reality, very few ever get to to do that," Rennie said. Romero has been there and done that, logging six seasons with top-flight Málaga, and playing with the Uruguayan side in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
I asked the right-footed Romero what his reputation as a player was. He replied, through a translator, "I'm known as a strong tackler, a strong marker. I have a lot of fight, and I leave everything on the field."
Still, there's the unavoidable question of what such a fine player is doing in the American second division. During the press conference, it fell to a Spanish-radio reporter to ask, not so delicately, how Romero felt about America's reputation as the "cementario de grandes jugadores" (graveyard of great players). Romero responded gracefully, saying "it's not the end of my career, it's just another stage—and hopefully there will be a trophy at the end of it."
Indeed, it's true that Romero missed most of the 2005-06 season with an injury to his right knee, and played nine games the following season. His agent, Antonio Porretta of Score One Soccer, however, pointed out that, after successful surgery, Romero was signed for two more seasons with Málaga. A short stint with second division Lucena followed, before Romero decided to look across the ocean, Porretta said. And the knee? He's fit, Porretta said firmly.
As for the question of how Romero came to the attention of the RailHawks, it appears that the matchmaking was done by Score One, a Charlotte agency comprised of Porretta and Daniel Araujo (a Montevideo native) that specializes in bringing Latino talent to America. Porretta also said his firm specializes in arranging North-South friendlies. So, if the ’Hawks schedule a match with a Mexican side—as they have in each of the last two years, with spectacular attendance—Score One may have something to do with it.
First impressions are just that, first impressions, but Romero is one tightly coiled born athlete, with a modest, poised demeanor that suggests he does his talking on the pitch. He may or may not be winding down his playing career, but he comes off as a man with plenty of game left in him, and plenty of experience and sophistication to offer his younger teammates. He's an exciting addition to the squad.
In other news, Rennie said he expects midfielder Kupono Low to return to Cary, noting that Low's versatility will allow him to find room on the field even if it's Romero who's running the back of the attack. Rennie also said he expects to see midfielders Santiago Fusilier and Martin Nuñez in training camp, which begins Feb. 9.
The second round of open tryouts, to be held Feb. 14-15, was scheduled because the team was "inundated" with reputable players who wanted a chance to show their stuff, Rennie said. He also said that one unnamed player, a midfielder, made a strong impression during the December tryouts and will be signed.
Rennie also offered appraisals of the RailHawks' other signings, including striker Aaron King, late of the Charleston Battery. "He's got a lot of potential. He'll have more of an opportunity to attack rather than play with his back to the goal."