We're coming to the sad realization that the RailHawks' regular season is drawing to a close. It's been a real treat to see such a quality team this year. In reflecting on the season in advance of tonight's regular season finale against the Montreal Impact, we find ourselves thinking about the issue of year-end league honors.
Team honors, selected by the players, will be announced prior to the playoff game Sept. 27—and you can vote, too, for "fan favorite."
We're thinking about the league: The USL will recognize a first and second team all-USL-1 lineup, and there should be citations for best goalkeeper, best defender, and most valuable player. A recent speculative press release from the league office, after reviewing the top performers from other squads, acknowledged the difficulty of recognizing the RailHawks, who are unique in their dependence on a revolving lineup of 20+ quality players, rather than four or five aces.
To take the most obvious example: The league leaders in goals scored (Johnny Menyongar of Rochester, Mandjou Keita of Portland, Charles Gbeke of Vancouver) all have 11 goals. The RailHawks' leading goal scorers, however, have only six (Gregory Richardson and Sallieu Bundu), yet collectively the team is the second in the league in scoring goals, with 41.
However, if one looks at goals-per-game, one RailHawk in particular becomes one of the league's best scorers. Richardson's six goals have come in 11 games, a rate that would put him in first place in the league if it were sustained over the season. (Then there's Joseph Kabwe and his five goals and four assists in 15 games and 806 minutes; production that's good enough to place him in the the league's top 20 in points.)
Richardson is probably the RailHawks' best candidate among the scorers, with Bundu also a strong second-team possibility, but we'd like to make a case for Daniel Paladini for post-season honors.
His scoring numbers aren't spectacular (four goals and four assists), but he's been the primary playmaker for the league's second-most prolific offense, playing 27 games (tying him with defender and captain Mark Schulte) and 1,959 minutes (third on the team behind Schulte and Jeremy Tolleson). He's a cool-headed presence with exceptional field vision from box to box. When he's not on the field, we wish he were, and he's one deserving candidate who might be in most danger of being passed over in favor of players with gaudier scoring numbers.
On to the defense, which is where we really hope to see some recognition: The RailHawks have given up 20 goals this season, good for second in the league behind Portland's 19. Mark Schulte and Jeremy Tolleson have anchored this defense together since the latter stepped in for the injured Jack Stewart back in May. They've played 4,533 minutes for a defense that gives up .69 goals a game. Both should land spots on the all-league teams, and Schulte should be a front-runner for defender of the year (Puerto Rico's Christian Arrieta, however, might be favored for his goal-scoring abilities, but when we saw him against the RailHawks on Sept. 12, his marking of Richardson didn't seem to merit consideration for "defender of the year").
A case can be made, too, for Kupono Low and Amir Lowery: The versatile Low accepted this year's massive squad turnover and his new, slightly diminished role with aplomb and became a stalwart go-to player at both left back and in the midfield, playing 21 games and 1,622 minutes; Lowery was an ummovable object in the back of the midfield, clearing headers, winning 50/50 balls and disrupting play in 22 games and 2,217 minutes.
Finally, we'd like to challenge the USL to honor both of the RailHawks goalkeepers, Caleb Patterson-Sewell and Eric Reed. Sure, they've been a platoon, but here are a couple of facts:
Finally, there's the business of Coach of the Year. The RailHawks' Martin Rennie has to be a leading candidate, but Portland's Gavin Wilkinson, after managing to hold onto his job after a last-place finish last year, turned it around for a dominating sprint to first place.
Regardless of whether Rennie gets COY honors, it's clear that he deserves tremendous credit for bringing winning soccer to Cary, and doing it in a way that encourages, and rewards, contributions from everyone. No doubt there are players who feel they deserve more time, and fans who wish to see certain players more often, but Rennie has stayed true to his instincts and brought in results all season long.
Tonight's game in Cary against the Montreal Impact will be a curious affair: Both teams are already in the playoffs, but there's more at stake for the RailHawks. Depending on the outcome of the last games around the league, the RailHawks could end up in sole possession of second place, or they could finish as low as fourth. A second place finish (and the No. 2 playoff seed) can be achieved with a victory tonight and the failure of the Charleston Battery to collect six points in its final two games. A second-place tie between the Battery and the RailHawks will bump the latter to third, based on the tiebreaker formula.
If the RailHawks lose tonight to the Impact, who took four points from them in two games three weeks ago in Montreal, they could end up as low as fourth. A fourth-place finish would mean a second-round meeting with the Commissioner's Cup winner Portland Timbers.
Regardless of the outcome, the RailHawks will have the superior seeding against the first-round opponent, which will be either Montreal, Rochester or Vancouver. The USL playoffs are played in two-leg stages, and the RailHawks' home leg is set for Sunday, Sept. 27 at 5 p.m.
The forecast is for light drizzle and temperatures in the low 70s. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.