by Neil Morris
This Saturday, things return to normal as WakeMed Park’s regular tenant, the Carolina RailHawks, take on the Puerto Rico Islanders for the second time this year. The Islanders downed Carolina 2-1 back on April 9 to spoil the RailHawks home opener. Carolina has not lost a game since, winning five of their last six matches. Meanwhile, the Islanders had not dropped a match this season before losing at Minnesota two nights ago.
Carolina currently sits atop the NASL table, and while Puerto Rico is tied for third in the league standings, they have two games in hand over the league leaders.
“To me, this is the most talented team we’ve ever had, and the level of play for the RailHawks is up there with many MLS teams,” says Carolina manager Martin Rennie. “And, Puerto Rico is one of the best teams in the CONCACAF region. So, these are two of the better teams in the country, and if people come out they’re going to see a good game.”
Exactly how many people will come out is the big question. Now at the one-quarter point of the regular season, the RailHawks have hosted four of their 14 scheduled home matches. Attendance for the first two Saturday evening contests was suppressed by Mother Nature, and the last two games at WakeMed Park were midweek affairs that typically draw smaller crowds. The officially announced attendance of 2,109 that watched last week’s win over Ft. Lauderdale is the club’s season high.
This weekend’s clash with Puerto Rico will be the truest barometer to date of the current state of the RailHawks local popularity. Carolina is off to the best start in club history, spearheaded by a ruthless striker in Etienne Barbara, who has scored in every match this season and whose nine goals in 2011 and 17 over his RailHawks career are both new club records.
Carolina will face a team that is not only successful but traditionally draws well on the road. The game is being played on a Saturday night. No other area pro or college team is in town this weekend, not even the Durham Bulls. And, yes, the forecast for May 21 is finally calling for good weather—partly cloudy with a small chance of a rapture.
“I think we’re going to have a very good crowd Saturday,” says RailHawks president Curt Johnson. “It’s a marquee match-up, and it may be the last time we see Puerto Rico in the Triangle this year, although I have a feeling we may meet up with them in the playoffs. They’re the defending champions and we lost the first game to them this year. So, Puerto Rico is clearly becoming a team that our fans rally around and want to see us do well against.”
One anomaly to the hot streaks the RailHawks enjoyed to close last season and open this one is the fact that they have not defeated Puerto Rico in four of the last five matches the teams have played. Rennie quickly points out that if you expand to the last seven matches between the clubs, the RailHawks have won three games and tied one.
The Islanders have also added firepower since April’s match in the form of former RailHawk mainstay Gregory Richardson, although the quicksilver winger is currently injured and not slated to play this Saturday.
Rennie also believes the RailHawks are a stronger team than the one that lost to the Islanders a month ago.
“Chris Nurse was injured, Brad Rusin was suspended, Etienne Barbara had only been here for about seven hours, Pablo Campos hadn’t trained much so he wasn’t fit and ready, and Allan Russell was injured,” says Rennie. “So, we didn’t have anything like the starting lineup or team that we’ve been playing the last few weeks.”
Rennie attributes several factors to the RailHawks’ success so far this season.
“First, we’re an attacking threat,” Rennie begins. “We’ve got players who can score goals, and you’ve always got a chance in any game when you can score goals. Number two, they’re a very confident group of players. Even if they lose a goal, they don’t think the game’s over and still believe they can win. And third, they have a desire to be a good team. It’s not about players being good individually; it’s about being a good team and everyone playing their role.
In addition to success on the field, Johnson also hopes the RailHawks’ brand and profile will grow thanks to events like last Wednesday’s USWNT friendly.
“It’s not really known how involved the RailHawks are in an event like that,” Johnson explains. “Sometimes the impact of pro soccer in the community gets lost. Some think, ‘Well, the U.S. National Team wanted to come to Cary so they came to Cary.’ It’s not that simple, and we put in a lot of resources in order to get those games.
“We were the driving force in bringing the [USWNT] here; it was a contract that we signed with U.S. Soccer. It was really well received by fans in the Triangle, and we want to do more of that. An international exhibition with the RailHawks playing a Mexican league team or a Premier League team would be the next priority.”
For Rennie and the RailHawks, however, it’s first things first.
“To me, the start of our season depends on what happens Saturday - get a win Saturday and it’s been an incredible start to the season. My focus is on this game as opposed to what we’ve done up to now.”
Gametime for the Carolina RailHawks and Puerto Rico Islanders is 7:00 p.m. For tickets, call the WakeMed Park Box Office at -919-859-5425 or visit www.carolinarailhawks.com