Photo by Joannah Irvin
Kenney Walker finds his footing during the RailHawks' Sept. 14 match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies
Three months. That’s all it has been since the Carolina RailHawks were poised to put the cherry atop their springtime sundae. Two goals in the final five minutes gave Carolina a 3-2 win over Minnesota United FC on June 22 and solidified the RailHawks’ foothold atop the North American Soccer League’s spring season standings. Following a midweek U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals trip to Real Salt Lake, the RailHawks stood ready to clinch the NASL spring title with a win over the Atlanta Silverbacks the following Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park. No problem, right? After all, Carolina had won all eight previous 2013 home matches, including a couple of Open Cup victories over the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA of Major League Soccer.
Even though Carolina ultimately tied Atlanta on June 29, the RailHawks still needed only a solitary point in the season finale at San Antonio on July 4. No problem, right? After all, Carolina had only lost once all spring, to those pesky Silverbacks. With their backs against the wall, surely the RailHawks could salvage a draw, and with it a championship.
Even though Carolina ultimately lost in San Antonio, ceding the spring title to those pesky Silverbacks, the RailHawks entered the NASL fall season as the consensus favorites to snag the fall crown and face Atlanta for the NASL Soccer Bowl in November. And four games in, Carolina again stood atop the table after starting the season with three wins along with one draw. No problem, right?
Three losses and one tie later, the RailHawks are at a crossroads of their 2013 season. And before Carolina embarks on a three-game road trip—somewhere the RailHawks still haven’t won all year—it hosts the Fort Lauderdale Strikers this Saturday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. in Cary—somewhere the RailHawks still haven’t been beaten all year. A win against the Strikers keeps the RailHawks in the hunt; a loss might dice any lingering title hopes.
Coaches and players like to blame the intangible without admitting it. The “bad break” is a common culprit. Reasons are castigated as “excuses.” “Drive,” “heart,” and “character” are referenced as if they’re part of the roster. But with the RailHawks racing to reshuffle lineups and tactics in time to right the ship, perhaps another intangible is to blame: Karma.
When LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena declined to travel to North Carolina with his team of mainly reservists for their May 29 U.S. Open Cup match against the RailHawks, the Galaxy’s ensuing 2-0 loss was hailed as a victory for karmic comeuppance.
Nearly a month later, the RailHawks fielded a less-than full strength lineup for their 3-0 drubbing against Real Salt Lake, choosing to rest many of its starters for the important Atlanta match the following weekend. Three days later, Carolina tied those pesky Silverbacks. Five days after that, Carolina lost the NASL spring title. Just how pervasive were the bad vibrations? The RailHawks’ July 6 friendly against Puebla FC was cancelled … due to a volcanic eruption.
When asked about this after his team’s draw in Cary, Atlanta manager Brian Haynes evoked a related buzz word.
“The only factor I think it played is the fact that [Carolina] has been on a win streak and winning games,” Haynes said. “And even though Colin [Clarke, Carolina’s manager] didn’t play his real players, they didn’t win. And that can take away from your momentum.”
Flash forward to the RailHawks’ most recent slide in momentum, and it’s hard ignore the accumulation of bad karma. A week before the start of the fall season, Carolina traded Floyd Franks, the team captain in the middle of his fourth season with the club, to Minnesota United FC. In return, the RailHawks received Bryan Arguez, who was arrested for rape two weeks later
near Atlanta and is no longer with the club.
On August 22, the Galaxy recalled the midseason loans of reservists Kenney Walker and Bryan Gaul to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The Strikers, which finished dead last in the NASL spring season standings, had opened their fall campaign with one win and two losses. The Galaxy immediately re-loaned Walker and Gaul to the RailHawks, which had opened the fall with two wins and one loss.
In their five games since, the Strikers have two wins, two draws and a loss. Meanwhile, the RailHawks have one win, one tie and three losses. The latest two losses both occurred after Carolina surrendered stoppage time goals, first an own goal at Tampa Bay and then a PK following a handball penalty at San Antonio.
The blame for Carolina’s recent woes does not fall squarely on the shoulders of two MLS loanees (although, to further the cosmic symmetry, Walker played 90 minutes for the Galaxy during their Open Cup loss to the RailHawks). But karma melds with chemistry as the team struggles to integrate new players mid season while combating injuries to such key contributors as Brian Shriver, Austin da Luz and Jordan Graye.
Indeed, a RailHawks official reports that both Shriver and da Luz did not train this week and will miss tomorrow's match against the Strikers. Graye’s status remains questionable.
To add depth (and shake things up), today the RailHawks announced the signing of Michael Callahan on loan from the Richmond Kickers. The 26-year-old Callahan grew up in Cary and played college soccer for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Meanwhile, the Strikers are also playing their own game of chicken with the fates. New head coach Günter Kronsteiner, assistant Ricardo Lopes and substitute Walter Restrepo were sent off during the Strikers’ Sept. 15 visit to Edmonton. After being exiled to the grandstands, Kronsteiner and Lopes appeared to continue electronic communication with the bench area, which led to the two coaches being escorted to their locker room by police.
Kronsteiner and Lopes were suspended from last week’s match against the New York Cosmos as a result of their actions. Fort Lauderdale lost to the Cosmos, snapping the Strikers’ five-game unbeaten streak. Both coaches return to the sideline this Saturday in Cary.
Which side will win out Saturday evening under the stars? Perhaps only an astrologer knows.