WAKEMED SOCCER PARK/CARY—The first thing we saw last night was a red-clad team that looked like the N.C. State Wolfpack. Then we saw a team that was neither the Wolfpack nor the Carolina RailHawks. Closer observation revealed that the New England Revolution were in town, finishing up a light workout on their first day of training in Cary in advance of next week's friendly versus the RailHawks.
The Revolution left the field and soon RailHawks began showing up in twos and threes. Warmups began. It was good to see Matt Watson on his feet again after that broken leg from last September. We overheard team captain Mark Schulte introducing himself to an unfamiliar teammate who would turn out to be Thomas Stewart, late of Derry City in the Irish First Division. Amir Lowery strolled up midway through warmups, howdying the onlookers like the celebrity he should be someday. Brian Plotkin, still recuperating from a groin injury, jogged on the adjacent field until he was informed by a RailHawks staff member that the field was closed (and perhaps toxic).
Off in the distance, someone who looked like goalkeeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell—who we thought was training with the New York Red Bulls—watched the proceedings for a few minutes before disappearing.
A light drizzle and overcast skies portended an unpleasant viewing experience, but the water went away and we were left with wind and a gloomy, unlit and pocky field. The RailHawks eventually played a game, spanking the fiesty Wolfpack by a score of 4-1. Although the Wolfpack—a solid, above-average team in the nation's best college soccer conference—fought for every ball and enjoyed a fair amount of possession, they never seriously challenged the RailHawks defense.
"If it hadn't been for the penalty, we defended well tonight and probably should have had a clean sheet," RailHawks coach Martin Rennie said after the game. "We were working on a couple of set plays, defensively, which I felt we did quite well on. Generally speaking, there were guys getting 90 minutes for the first time. They got tired but that's part of this process. We're training twice every day and then playing games."
The first two RailHawks goals were scored in the first half by an unnamed "Trialist No. 16" playing up top, who turned in balls delivered from the Gregory Richardson side of the field. The third goal also came in the first half, on a Daniel Paladini free kick from 20 yards that he casually dinked into the lower left corner—completely ignoring the "wall" that was in front of him. The fourth came in the second half, when Stewart, fresh off a transatlantic flight, tapped in a cross from the left.
N.C. State's lone goal came in the first half after a challenge in the box by, perhaps, Josh Gardner. Wolfpack standout defender (and CASL veteran) Tyler Lassiter converted the ensuing PK. Otherwise, we'll mostly remember the Wolfpack's performance for the hotheaded left back Zane Tharakan who—apparently having never felt a professional foul before—tried to mix it up in the second half with the mild-mannered, and very professional, Joseph Kabwe.
Our takeaway: It's going to be tough to score goals on this RailHawks team. Despite a couple of misadventures in the back, Schulte, Lowery, Jun Marques Davidson, Matt Bobo and Brad Rusin are going to be a formidable, towering crew in central defense and holding midfield.
Another takeaway: This team has the luxury of beginning its season with Richardson, who joined the team mid-season last year, and already we're seeing Schulte working on his timing with the left winger, launching balls down the flank that will surely feature in the RailHawks attack this year.
There were some new RailHawks out there. This is the first time we've seen them, so while Jun Marques Davidson and Ramak Niakan Safi have apparently been out there before, they were new to us. Davidson looked solid on the ball playing about three-quarters of the game, but Safi played the entire match at right back—and an adventurous game it was. Big, fast and powerful, he stayed busy—but not always in a good way—and frequently took off for dribbling runs through the midfield (thus showing his background as an attacking player).
Safi is of Iranian extraction and attended school at Jacksonville University where he was third-team NSCAA All-South in 2008 (an all-star lineup with some very familiar names). He's a great story: Utterly unknown to Rennie and his staff, he came to the open tryout and seems to have won a spot on the roster.
"He's a really good player, he just needs to learn more about playing right back—he hasn't played [there] much," Rennie said. "He needs to learn about decision-making at times. Because he's a really good athlete, he has the potential to compete with Greg Shields. I don't know if he can get in front of Greg Shields, but he got an opportunity to play, he's got some potential. If he can work on his decision-making on the ball, he can do OK."
Thomas Stewart is something of a surprise addition to the RailHawks roster this season, but his club, Derry City FC of the League of Ireland First Division, entered administration last fall—the Northern Irish club was disciplined with relegation from the Irish Premier Division in November and Stewart, a former Wolverhampton Wanderer, was a casualty of the budget cutting. Stewart's inclusion hasn't been announced by the RailHawks, but sources unearthed by TriSoccerFan indicate that he's joining the club for which he scored a goal last night.
Rennie said nothing to discourage that.
"He only flew in last night so we were just going to play him 20 minutes. But one of the other players [Trialist No. 16] got hurt—his hamstring. He's quite well-known—he was the captain of Northern Ireland Under-21 [where] he played with Jonny Evans of Manchester United. He wouldn't have been available to us but that his club went into administration and he was out of contract."
And what about Trialist No. 16? A big, fast and young striker, he seems to be the only remaining question mark in the roster, and with his first-half brace he looked very much like a viable option. However, he left the game at half time with a hamstring pull. In a confirmation of his viability, Rennie wouldn't discuss his identity on the record, but said more generally, "He's a guy that's trying out and we're hoping he can stay here a bit longer."
Oh, and was that Caleb Patterson-Sewell we saw before the game? "Yes, he trained with us yesterday, but I think he's going to be moving to a different club, we just don't know who. As long as he's here, he's welcome to train with us."
Right now, it appears that the RailHawks roster is largely set, at about 22 or 23 players. The roster players who didn't see action were Plotkin, who is injured; Caleb Norkus, whom we didn't see at all (but that doesn't mean he wasn't there); and Andriy Budnyy, who is on leave to his native Ukraine to attend to personal matters but will return in a few days. Maltese striker Etienne Barbara and Scottish right back Greg Shields will join the team at the end of the month.
Of the players not listed on the roster as of now, we saw on the field Rusin, Gilkerson, Stewart, Safi, Josh Gardner and goalkeeper Nic Platter—who kept a clean sheet in the second half. We also think we saw Sallieu Bundu warming up before the game, but he didn't play. (As for a couple of other ex-RailHawks not listed on the roster: We didn't see Devon McKenney, who played the Duke game on Feb. 20, nor did we see, mea culpa, Gavin Glinton, who has not been in camp and apparently will not be a RailHawk this year.)
And we saw Trialist No. 16.
Here are the RailHawks lineups for each half.
Kabwe---Davidson (Watson)---Low---Richardson (Franks*)
*This player sort of matched this photo, but we didn't get confirmation that it was, in fact, Franks.