by Neil Morris
A joint press conference featuring coaches and players for the Carolina RailHawks and Major League Soccer's New England Revolution was designed to promote the teams' preseason friendly this Saturday evening, March 20, at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
However, another continuing revolution again took center stage thanks to one attendee, RailHawks' President Brian Wellman.
Joining Wellman for Tuesday's press conference at the Hilton Garden Inn in Durham, N.C. were RailHawks' coach Martin Rennie and captain Mark Schulte, together with longtime Revolution head coach Steve Nicol and two of their young players, Raleigh natives Darrius Barnes (a Duke University grad) and Zack Schilawski (a former Wake Forest standout). All appeared before members of the local media and a smattering of diehard RailHawks supporters.
Barnes enters his second season with New England as the only field player in MLS to play every minute of every game during his last year's rookie outing. Meanwhile, Schilawski is embarking on his rookie season with the Revolution after the team drafted him in the first round of this year's MLS SuperDraft. Although Schilawski will play in Saturday's game, Nicol confirmed that Barnes will not due to a minor injury.
Last year, the RailHawks won the Community Shield match against New England, 1-0. This year's game marks the end of the Revolution's 10-day training visit to WakeMed Park. Last weekend, the Revs traveled to Charlotte, where they defeated the USL-2's Charlotte Eagles 2-0. The match against Carolina will be their final tune-up before the scheduled MLS season opener against the L.A. Galaxy on March 27—a event that could be delayed or canceled if the ongoing MLS labor dispute isn't resolved by then.
I will defer to the RailHawks's revamped Web site for much of the arduous work of transcribing the comments that came from the dais. It is safe to say that the Railhawks enter the season a hungry and confident kettle. Coming off last year's regular season runner-up finish in USL-1, which included winning the most matches in the league, Rennie returns the core of his squad along with several new, key pieces.
"For players and for coach, a second-place finish isn't what we're after," said team captain Schulte. "We want to be first. It was a commendable season, considering no one really knew each other the first month or so. This year, I think is going to be something special."
But, it was Wellman who sounded the most insurgent chord, using his opening prepared comments to expound on the mindset of both his team and its fledgling, as-yet-unsanctioned league, the North American Soccer League (NASL).
"Every roster spot is a meaningful spot, and Martin has a plan for every guy on the roster to get us deeper in the playoffs and contend for championships in both the U.S. Open Cup as well as the NASL league cup."
The latter reference is eyebrow-raising, seeing how such a cup does not currently exist. The USSF has mandated that the member squads of both the USL-1 and NASL play in a combined USSF-sanctioned Division 2 league for 2010. Neither the USL-1 or NASL are individually sanctioned as D2 leagues by USSF this year.
Undaunted, Wellman continued: "The NASL is a new organization. Everybody has heard bits and pieces during the off-season, and there's been a little turmoil. But, it has settled itself down, and the clubs are all strong and moving forward...The NASL's goal is to bring passion and excitement back to the fans. The focus of the NASL is obviously going to be on the quality of players and teams and raising the level of expectation of fans for what we provide as a product."
In an interview last October, Wellman spoke about the changes D2 soccer needed to make "if we're to compete with the MLS and the rest of the world, for that matter."
When asked today whether scrimmages like this one against the Revolution are part of that process, Wellman said, "MLS has a real high quality and standard of play.... Likewise, in our league, the standard is extremely high. We know our standard is high, and when we compete against MLS teams, we always do well, and so do the other teams in our league. Our goal in the NASL is to raise the perception of our league. In the past, there's been confusion. Are you minor league, similar to baseball? We are not minor league and we are not a farm system for MLS. We feel we can compete with them, and it's our goal as executives in the NASL to raise the commercial viability of the product to where fans and the media recognize the standard is very high."
Other news and notes:
—The press conference comes on the heels of the RailHawks' formal announcement of its most recent signing, defender Ramak Safi, who came to the team via this year's open tryout.
—"Trialist No. 16," who can only be identified at this time as a striker from The Gambia, remains with the club after flashing much promise during last week's scrimmage against N.C. State and could sign a contract in the coming days. "He's scored four goals for us in only 90 [preseason] minutes played," said Rennie, his eyes lighting up. "So, we think we've got someone special, and we hope we can work something out." [Rennie also said that this player would probably not feature in Saturday's contest, due to a nagging hamstring injury.*]
—When asked whether the recent signing of former Minnesota Thunder goalkeeper Nic Platter, who joins returning keeper Eric Reed, signaled that he planned to alternate keepers from game to game like last season, Rennie agreed that was a distinct possibility. "Obviously, if one stands out from the other, that person will start. But, that's a system that worked well for us in the past, and it's certainly something we might do again."
—The RailHawks' final roster is slowly solidifying. They are still awaiting the arrival of Maltese striker Etienne Barbara and returning defender Greg Shields. During an interview prior to the press conference, Rennie stated that other trialists may make an appearance during back-to-back scrimmages against UNC-Chapel Hill and Montreal on March 26-27. But, they will mainly be there to spell the regulars in advance of the April 10 regular season opener.
For tickets to the RailHawks' scrimmage against New England, contact the box office at WakeMed Soccer Park at (919) 859-KICK (5425), or purchase online at www.carolinarailhawks.com
* Post modified at 11:17 a.m., March 17.