The roster updates from the Cary offices of the Carolina RailHawks have been trickling in. There have been heartening re-signings, most notably that of quicksilver Guyanese winger Gregory Richardson. Also back for another season: stalwart defensive midfielder Amir Lowery, goalkeeper Eric Reed, the aggressive midfielders Brian Plotkin and Joseph Kabwe, and defenders Caleb Norkus and Mark Schulte. Right back Greg Shields—currently on loan to Partick Thistle of the Scottish second division (according to the gratifyingly transparent Web site of the Glaswegian club, we know that his loan expires March 31)—seems to be slated for a return, as well.
Today brought two pieces of news. First was the surprising retirement of 2009 team defender of the year Jeremy Tolleson. Only 27 years old, the Atlanta native has elected to hang up his boots and become a missionary in Honduras. Tolleson began last season on the sidelines, recuperating from a foot injury. His return came at a fortuitous time, however, when central defender Jack Stewart was lost for the season with a broken leg. Tolleson subsequently partnered with Schulte to anchor the league's best defense; despite being only 5-foot-9, he effectively positioned himself to snuff out attack after attack, and also proved to be a dangerous attacking weapon with his long balls forward (3:18).
It's disappointing to lose a player of his caliber, but one can't help but be impressed by his willingness to walk away from a sport that has surely dominated his life for 20 years. Although it's true that Division 2 soccer players in America are paid little more than missionaries (and perhaps D2 soccer players are secular missionaries, spreading love for a game that pays them less than they could make doing almost anything else), it still comes as a start to fans that an athlete could have a calling above playing sports for a living. Our hat is off to you, Mr. Tolleson, and Godspeed.
Tolleson's departure will intensify interest in whether Stewart will return to the club.
We'll also see what solution team coach Martin Rennie will have for the left back spot, which operated more or less by committee last season, with John Gilkerson, Kupono Low and Norkus all seeing time there. Intriguingly, there are two Guyanese prospects (in addition to a Trinidadian) reportedly on their way to a trial with the RailHawks, and both are defenders.
Although there are approximately 20 roster spots awaiting confirmed players, among the major question marks are the plans of team MVP Daniel Paladini, who made clear at the end of last season his intention to investigate more prestigious pastures; fleet winger Josh Gardner, who is currently on trial with his old club, the Seattle Sounders; hardworking winger Luke Kreamalmeyer, who seemed to fall in and out of favor last season in an inconsistent campaign; and whether we'll see the return of strikers Sallieu Bundu, Andriy Budnyy and Gavin Glinton (and, given the frequent punchless-ness of the RailHawks in the attacking third, a new face or two). There's been no news, either, of Matt Watson, the elegant midfielder whose 2009 campaign was frustrated by injuries that culminated with a broken leg suffered in September.
And then there's Caleb Patterson Sewell, the marvelous, occasionally electrifying young keeper who platooned last season with Eric Reed. After the end of last season, he returned to his old MLS club, the New York Red Bulls, for a single-game loan. In November he appeared in Cary for a photo op with retired French international Lilian Thuram. And then, thanks to the miracle that is Google, he was spotted on trial in Poland, for the first division side Odra Wodzislaw. FWIW, his Wiki page says he's still a RailHawk.
And there's a second piece of news that I alluded to a few paragraphs back. Oh, yes: the schedule's out. The season opener is April 10 in Cary, against the Claude Anelka-coached, Steve Ralson-led AC St. Louis.
The schedule's a bit odd, though. After a quick follow-up home game against the revived and renamed NSC Minnesota Stars on April 16, there's not another home game until May 14, which is the only home league game for the entire month, and then another whole month elapses until the fourth home game, on June 19. It appears that the RailHawks are holding some dates for one, two or three U.S. Open Cup games during this time. They may also need to re-sod the pitch, and there could be a high-profile friendly in there, too.
And, on the other end, there will be six home games in the dog days of late July and August, and the season itself will run a month later than in the past, with the regular season finale to occur Sept. 30, at home versus the Austin Aztex. An eight-team playoff will ensue, with the winners of the NASL and USL divisions qualifying automatically and the other six teams being determined by overall points total.
Postscript @ 1:02 a.m.: In looking at the league schedule more closely, we see that the 30-game schedule is (of course, given the 12 teams) unbalanced. Each team will play seven opponents twice, while playing the remaining four opponents four times apiece. The RailHawks, therefore, will play 16 games against the defending USL-1 champs Montreal Impact, the powerful Puerto Rico Islanders, the less-powerful Rochester Rhinos and the USL-2 upstarts Crystal Palace Baltimore. Just a guess, but the folks in Baltimore might feel like they're in a Group of Death. And it'll be no picnic for the Impact, Islanders, Rhinos or RailHawks to pick up points in this group, either.
The lack of balance could favor some teams. For example, and by way of contrast, Miami FC, one of the weaker teams last season, will play four games apiece against Puerto Rico, Rochester, Austin and Tampa Bay. Only one of those four opponents—the Islanders—was particularly strong last season, while Austin was in its inaugural season. Tampa Bay, of course, is a 2010 expansion team. Still, when one considers the jerry-rigged nature of this entire 2010 enterprise, it may be best to be grateful there's even a season, as opposed to obsessing over the scheduling arrangements.