by Neil Morris
MIDDLE CREEK PARK/ CARY—The outcome of the Carolina RailHawks' first scrimmage of the 2010 USSF Division 2 soccer season was as incidental as its venue. For the record, the RailHawks defeated Duke University 3-2 in a match held at Middle Creek Park in Cary, an above-average parks & rec facility devoid of seating or a scoreboard. A modest number of die-hard fans—representing both sides—watched from along the touchline, close enough to hear the bawdy on-field clamor that normally evaporates in the more spacious confines of WakeMed Park.
Still, the match was sporty and well-contested, as evidenced by the urgent tenor of the players on the pitch. For the RailHawks, this debut preseason match was more an opportunity to observe a number of players vying to earn a spot on the team's roster, prospects referred to generically as "trialists." For various reasons, even the identities of these trialists are shrouded in mystery—inquiries to head coach Martin Rennie about the names of several went unanswered.
The RailHawks' first half side was comprised almost entirely of trialists, joined only by returning midfielder Kupono Low, forward Sallieu Bundu and goalkeeper Eric Reed. Not coincidentally, Duke controlled the half and jumped out to a 2-0 lead, which was cut to 2-1 near halftime when one prospect punched a Bundu cross past the goalkeeper.
The RailHawks' second half featured more familiar and formidable faces. Joining Reed and trialist Shintaro Harada from the opening stanza were Daniel Paladini, Andriy Budnyy, Mark Schulte, Joseph Kabwe, John Gilkerson, Devon McKenney, Josh Gardner, newcomer Floyd Franks and forward prospect Joseph Ngwenya, a 28-year-old Zimbabwean striker whose resume includes productive stints with the L.A. Galaxy, Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo. Ngwenya hammered through the equalizer midway through the second half (see the goal here). Then Low, subbing for an injured Franks, chipped in the game-winner just before the referee blew the full-time whistle.
"Duke was really strong, so I was impressed with them, especially in the first half," said Rennie. "Then, in the second half we took our chances and played quite well. It's just the first week of training and it's more important to get our fitness going and things like that, but it's always nice to win."
The daunting tryout process is best encapsulated by the case of Harada, a venerable Japanese defender/midfielder who last year starred with Crystal Palace Baltimore in USL-2. Besides Reed, only Harada played the entire match against Duke, displaying skill and passing efficiency. But, when asked after the game about Harada's chances of making the club, Rennie stated, "We're probably not going to sign him. He was trying out and played well during the course of the week, but probably not quite well enough." Indeed, Ngwenaya is the only prospect from the Duke match that Rennie said was still being seriously considered for a roster spot.
Other news and notes:
- Leading up to training camp, the RailHawks have been stockpiling new defensive help, including Franks, 2009 USL-1 First-Team All-Leaguer Matt Bobo, and others. When asked when help was arriving for the front third, Rennie responded, "Well, Gregory Richardson will be back in a week, and we've signed someone we think is a big-time player from Malta who will be here pretty soon. We've also got Matt Watson coming back from injury, who is an attacking player. We'll probably add another guy, but with all of those [Rennie mentioned], along with the three or four guys we've already got, we think we're pretty close."
- Josh Gardner's presence at the Duke scrimmage was a bit unexpected, as it was commonly believed he had departed for opportunities in MLS. According to Rennie, Gardner's status is still uncertain. "He's got a potential offer from Seattle [Sounders], so he'll have to decide what he would like to do. But, he likes being here and we like having him, so we'll just have to wait and see."
- In addition to those who played in the Duke scrimmage, other confirmed (officially and unofficially) returnees from last year's RailHawks squad due to arrive by the end of the month include: Richardson, Watson, Greg Shields, Brian Plotkin, Caleb Norkus, Gavin Glinton and Amir Lowery. Rennie hopes to have his full plate of players by the March 5 preseason match against Elon University.
The RailHawks next preseason scrimmage is Saturday, Feb. 27 against Wake Forest on Field 6 at WakeMed Soccer Park.