But, head coach Martin Rennie isn’t ready to put the proverbial cart before the horse. “The most important thing is to play and perform well. People are talking a lot about championships, but right now it’s about winning one game and building from there. We can’t say we’re a championship team now.”
There is a palpable sense of excitement surrounding the RailHawks’ camp in advance of the regular season home opener against league newcomer AC St. Louis, and for good reason. Even with the departure of Jeremy Tolleson, Carolina’s already stout defensive center was augmented by the addition of former Charleston Battery All-League defender Matt Bobo, who has prompted nods of approval throughout the recently-completed preseason campaign. Together with captain Mark Schulte, Brad Rusin, and Amir Lowery, the RailHawks boast a solid defensive core.
Still, for all the heady forecasts, there remain noticeable unanswered questions. Of the 16 goals the RailHawks’ netted over their seven preseason scrimmages and friendlies, half were scored by players who are now either injured or otherwise no longer on the active roster. Perhaps more ominously, only one active forward — Andriy Budnyy — scored any of the remaining eight goals (Budnyy totaled three goals during scrimmages against Wake Forest and Elon).
This is one reason why the forward position has been a revolving door this preseason. Sainey Touray dazzled before suffering a hamstring tear that Rennie says will keep him out of action for at least another six weeks. Thomas Stewart contracted a bad case of homesickness that sent him back home to Ireland before his RailHawks career ever began. Joseph Ngwenya saw trial action throughout the preseason before departing the squad. Striker Etienne Barbara just arrived from Malta and has yet to really get his feet wet or body fit. And, as soon as tomorrow, the RailHawks will announce the signing of another forward who has seen recent trialist action. [ED: That would be Cory Elenio.]
Barbara’s arrival has been particularly anticipated ever since rumors about Rennie’s offseason recruiting trip began popping up. “Last January, Martin came over and brought some brochures about the club,” says Barbara. “I Googled them on the Internet, because I had never heard of the RailHawks before. But, once I came here, I was really, really impressed with what I saw. I mean, eight football pitches and the facilities—it’s something different.”
A member of the Malta national team, Barbara has spent his career bounding between various European clubs, most recently Maltese Premier League champions Hibernians. Barbara’s first week of training with the RailHawks also happens to be the first week he’s ever spent in America. “I could have easily kept playing in Europe. But, I was looking for a new challenge—a new life, a new culture. And I wanted to see how football was played in America. Here, football is more physical than technical. Tactics are even different. So, I have to get used to things here and get more fit than I am, because physically they’re very, very strong here, and I like that.”
So, for all the talk about replicating last year’s success, there are changes afoot to solve the team’s inconsistent scoring threat. “In the preseason, Martin has definitely changed the system a little bit, so it’s not technically going to be a 4-3-3 [formation],” says returning midfielder Daniel Paladini. “We will have that in our back pocket. But, we’re also trying a diamond in the middle, which in return creates more of an offense threat.
“Whether it’s me, Josh [Gardner], Gregory [Richardson], or [Joseph] Kabwe, we’re all rotating in the middle, so we don’t have a set position. So, basically we’re going to cause teams havoc in the middle. They’re going to have to pick us up and find us. We’re trying to force teams to make choices instead of just saying, “Okay, I am going to mark Daniel,” or “I’m going to mark Josh.” We’re going to be all mixed around. So, good luck…come get us.”