by Neil Morris
On the morning of Jan. 21, I met Carolina RailHawks’ head coach Martin Rennie at his office inside WakeMed Soccer Park. I had not spoken with Rennie since his post-match interview following the RailHawks loss to the Puerto Rico Islanders for the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) D-2 Pro League championship on Oct. 30, 2010.
With the Division-2 sanctioning of the North American Soccer League (NASL) seemingly in place and new ownership poised to assume control over the RailHawks, I relished the opportunity to speak with Rennie again and finally turn the attention of the team’s supporters to matters on the pitch.
The moment I exited our interview, however, my Twitter feed was abuzz with the breaking news that the USSF had voted to remove provisional D-2 sanction from the NASL. My interview with Rennie about player comings and goings seemed suddenly and decidedly moot.
Last weekend, the USSF once more provisionally sanctioned the NASL as a D-2 soccer league. With the RailHawks’ 2011 season now back on track, my conversation with Rennie again holds relevance.
Rennie and I discussed several topics, including the current status of several RailHawks players, a forecast of possible additions for the 2011 roster, the reputation of the club throughout the soccer community, and Rennie’s personal ambitions.
At the time we spoke, the 2011 status of the vast majority of players from last year’s roster remained unsettled, although Rennie expected the majority of them to return to WakeMed Park. The list of likely returnees includes Eric Reed, Sallieu Bundu, Cory Elenio, Kupono Low and Brad Rusin, the RailHawks’ new team captain.
Also returning are Floyd Franks (“He could have an even better year than last year,” said Rennie) and Sainey Touray (“His fitness seems to be coming back now; he seems to be getting stronger,” said the coach). Rennie hopes Greg Shields will return as well, but the right back continues to grapple with a lingering back injury.
Among the players not returning are MLS signees Daniel Paladini, Daniel Woolard and Tommy Heinemann. Ty Shipalane signed to play for a club in his native South Africa. Rennie says there is a good chance Josh Gardner, Amir Lowery and Marques Davidson will return to the RailHawks, but all are being looked at by other clubs—Gardner and Lowery by several MLS sides and Davidson by a team in Japan.
Rennie also confirmed that three other players—Caleb Norkus, John Gilkerson and Andriy Budnyy—will not return to the RailHawks this year. Rennie specifically went out of his way to praise Norkus.
“Caleb’s been a great servant for the club and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever coached or worked with. It’s been difficult for him not playing as much as he would like to. But, he’s got so much to offer coaching-wise and in other areas in the community…I wish him all the best—I’ve got nothing but respect for that guy.”
Rennie said the club was set to make significant additions to the roster. The coach would not provide specific names, but he did describe several hopefuls.
“There’s one attacking player who’s [in] the Caribbean tournament who I really like and he’s really interested in coming here,” says Rennie. “He’s played in Europe and in the Caribbean, and I think he could be a really good addition.
“We’ve got a couple of other options of high level players who can come in and play the role that Daniel Paladini played, the attacking midfielder,” adds Rennie. “These players have played on their national teams, and they’re certainly interested in coming here. There’s also two or three good players who were very, very good for other teams who have shown an interest in coming here.
“I think when all is said and done, we’ll have a really strong team,” says Rennie. “I’m excited about it. Over the last two years, we’ve built our team and our reputation to the point where now [players] are calling us wanting to come here.”
Speaking of that reputation, Rennie says the matriculation of several players to MLS and abroad has enhanced the RailHawks’ overall standing in the soccer world.
“Word gets around, and I believe the word about here is good, from the reputation of our coaching staff to our players, front office, stadium and facilities,” says Rennie.
“My goal when I came here two years ago was to make this the best [soccer] club in the U.S. outside of MLS, and I think we’ve achieved that,” Rennie continues.
“I think the MLS clubs see and recognize that, too, not just through our reputation but also the relationships with other coaches I’ve built.
“But, also, the team has done well on the field. When the team does well, it’s very common for the players to get opportunities to move to a higher level. We’re actually open to helping players [move up to higher levels]. We could say, ‘Well, we’re not going to let them go unless we get this astronomical amount of money.’ But, I see part of my job as a coach at this level is to help players get to the next level. Most coaches don’t see it that way—most coaches are just building their own team at all costs. I find that by helping guys get higher, I get more good players year after year.”
I also asked Rennie about a subject he rarely discusses with the media: his personal ambitions and aspirations. Rennie is in the final year of his contract with the RailHawks, and although he is perfectly happy with the club, the tug of greater glory remains.
“For me personally, I’m very ambitious,” admits Rennie. “I want to coach at as high a level as I possibly can. But, to do that you have to have success at the job you’re doing now.
“What I’ve always thought over the past two years is that it would have to be a real good opportunity [to consider leaving], because there are so many positives about coaching here,” Rennie continues. “I’m very young; many people don’t even start coaching until they’re older than I am now. It takes four years to really understand this job; many don’t get that four years because they don’t win enough and they get sacked. Well, I’ve coached four or five years and I’ve got a good understanding how to do it. So, I feel like I could be a good coach and I’m doing fine right now. I just want to keep getting better and keep winning.
“I suppose the short answer is I really like it here, and it would need to be something special for me to say, ‘Okay, I need to do that.’ But, like I said, if I could coach as high as I possibly can and test myself against the best coaches and work with the best players, of course I would love to do that.”
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Rennie about his goals for the 2011 season. Of course, he said the team’s first and foremost objective was winning a league championship. But, he quickly turned to another aim—oft-mentioned by the coach during his time in Carolina—that now seems rather plaintive in light of yesterday’s announcement by the USSF that the five U.S.-based NASL clubs are not eligible to compete in this year’s U.S. Open Cup.
“I’d really like to compete well in the Open Cup,” Rennie said. “I feel so disappointed that we haven’t done that. We’ve had the ability to do it and we’ve let ourselves down twice, both times against good teams but teams we should have been able to beat. And, those teams went on to beat MLS teams both times. So, that’s something I really want to address this season.”
The RailHawks will host a meet-the-team cocktail party for fans from 5:30-9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16 at the Brickhouse Sports Pub, located at 3801 Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. Rennie will conduct a Q-and-A, and new team president Curt Johnson will be introduced.