by Neil Morris
Nevertheless, what remains is a well-coached albeit still wet-behind-the-ears club with loads of potential but a scant three weeks of preseason training preceded last weekend’s opening day match at Vancouver. Minnesota played the talented Whitecaps to a nil-nil draw through the midway point, but the loss of venerable goalkeeper Louis Crayton to an injury near halftime triggered a Whitecaps’ tsunami that left the Stars on the losing end of a 2-0 defeat.
Still, to hear the RailHawks coaching staff tell it, they expect a tough match when the Stars visit WakeMed at 7pm this Friday evening. “We know [this] is going to be a difficult game,” says new RailHawks assistant coach Paul Ritchie, “but it’s a game we’re looking forward to, especially after last week and a good week of training. We know we’re in for a very, very difficult test, and we have to be at our best and ready to perform.”
The Stars’ squad contains a number of potential danger men. “Minnesota has a lot of players who have played at this level before, and that’s a big thing. They have a lot of good players, including Johnny Menyongar, who on his good days is one of the best players in the league. I know he’s coming back from a serious injury, but he’s a player who rates highly and you have to watch closely.”
The 30-year-old Menyongar is one of the most acclaimed players in USL history, and returns to Minnesota after a successful run with the Rochester Rhinos, during which he scored 28 goals in four seasons. Before that, he played six years for the Thunder, amassing 56 league goals.
Also making the trip (back) to North Carolina is Simone Bracalello, a 24-year-old forward who spent six productive seasons throughout the secondary divisions of Italian football. Bracelello tried out with the RailHawks early this preseason, and although he was not offered a contract with Carolina due to roster depth, he came to the Stars highly recommended by head coach Martin Rennie.
However, the loss of Crayton, a skilled, experienced keeper with loads of experience in the Swiss leagues and one season with DC United, will likely carry over to the match against Carolina. “I actually had a chance to talk to Louis on Monday before he went in to see the doctor,” says RailHawks goalkeeper Nic Platter. “He and I trained together in D.C. over the winter and we have a good relationship. He wasn’t too confident, from talking with him. I still don’t think he knows the extent of his injury. His knee was pretty swollen.”
Against Vancouver, 35-year-old backup Joe Warren — who came out of a four-year retirement to join the Stars — struggled in the second half before seeming to find his bearings. “[Joe’s] more than capable,” says Platter. “I played three years with Joe, first serving as his backup for two years and we have a great relationship. We learned a lot and supported each other when we were playing together. I don’t know if he was expecting to jump right into it [this season], but that’s the situation before him and I’m sure he’ll be just fine.”
Platter — also an avid photog who posts online to his own Web site, isnapfotos — enjoyed five standout seasons as a member of the Thunder before signing with the RailHawks over the offseason. Platter says he will not know until game day whether he or Eric Reed will be in goal against NSC Minnesota, and when asked, Ritchie chose to play that card close to his vest.
As for the RailHawks, Ritchie indicates that they will field mostly the same starting lineup that defeated AC St. Louis last week. “We going to try and play much the same players as last week just to give the boys a level of confidence. I think we did very well last week for our first game, and I don’t think anyone performed bad enough to leave them out of the team. I know there’s a lot of good players here and a lot of players who might be frustrated, but that’s part of football and part of having a strong mentality. It’s not about one game, it’s about the whole season.
“Last year, I know we would rotate players on a regular basis,” continues Ritchie. “I’m not sure we’ll do that this year. Of course, when the games come thick and fast and you have two or three games in four or five days, that’s when you require a big squad. But, that’s the only time. I think the boys who started last week who performed well for most of the game probably deserve another start.”
That said, Ritchie indicated forward Gregory Richardson continues to mend his lingering foot injury and might be featured at some stage of the Minnesota match.
Ritchie also shared some interesting information on the condition of Kupono Low, who suffered a severe right knee injury during a preseason scrimmage against Charleston. Contrary to most assumptions, Low has not undergone surgery despite tearing two knee ligaments. “Once he opts for surgery, that would effectively end his season,” said Ritchie. “So, for now, he’s more than happy to let his medial ligament [MCL] heal naturally. He’s got bad damage to his posterior cruciate ligament [PCL], but he’s not overly concerned about that. That’s something we’ll look at more after his medial heals, but we’re under the impression that he can do without an intact PCL, which for Kupono would be good news. Kupono is a great lad to have about and he’s a massive loss at the moment and hopefully we can get him back as soon as possible.”
After a long career in the highest levels of Scottish and English league soccer, and an eye-blink appearance as a player for the RailHawks last season before aggravating his own knee injury, Ritchie obtained UEFA ‘A’ coaching certification last year and joins the staff of head coach Martin Rennie. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn from Martin [Rennie],” proclaims Ritchie. “I think the players we are working with are quality players, and it’s a fantastic environment to play football. The facilities we have here in Cary are second-to-none, as good as what we have back home in the U.K. It’s been everything I thought it would be and more.”