Pro soccer - just up the road
Central North Carolina, like most parts of the country, became embroiled in soccer fever this summer during the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. That left many residents pining for professional-grade soccer in this area.
But did you know there is a professional soccer team just over a half-hour drive from Sanford? One which plays in a nearly 10,000-seat soccer-specific stadium and on what’s widely regarded as one of the best grass soccer fields in the country? A team that not only plays a regular season that runs from April until early November but also hosts matches against top-quality Major League Soccer and international clubs?
The Carolina RailHawks are currently in the middle of their eighth year of existence. The club’s peculiar name originated in 2006 from a name-the-team contest won by Jarrett Campbell, president of the Triangle Soccer Fanatics (TSF), the team’s official fan-based supporters group. The moniker is an amalgam of an aviary sports trope and the rail line that runs adjacent to WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, the RailHawks’ home venue.
During Saturday evening home matches, the horn of passing trains is often heard in the distance. Whenever the RailHawks score a goal, the sound is piped through the stadium’s public address system.
Carolina competes in the North American Soccer League (NASL), officially sanctioned by U.S. Soccer as the second division in American pro soccer, one level below MLS. The current NASL includes 10 teams, with two more expansions clubs slated to begin play in 2015. The league’s geographic scope reaches from Florida to New York, from Texas to Minnesota, and from Ottawa to Edmonton, Canada.
Unlike baseball, where major league franchises own and fund a farm system, the lower divisions of the so-called American soccer pyramid are independently operated enterprises. Indeed, in the NASL, each club is a separately owned entity.
Carolina is being run by its third ownership group, its third team president and its third head coach in club history. Colin Clarke, now in his third season as the RailHawks’ manager, has his own unique background.
A native of Northern Ireland, Clarke played 12 years in English football beginning in the early 1980s, including several seasons in the First Division. Clarke also made 38 appearances for the Northern Ireland national team and scored 13 goals, including one during the 1986 FIFA World Cup. After a knee injury ended Clarke’s playing days, he eventually moved to America where he embarked on a coaching career that has taken him from MLS to Puerto Rico and now Carolina.
The RailHawks’ transient roster is equally eclectic. Some are young players trying to play their way up the soccer ladder; some are older players on the back end of their careers but still yearning for the game.
Some are local products who played at area high schools, club academies and universities; some are foreign imports from Asia, Africa, Europe, South America and the Caribbean.
Then there’s 35-year-old Kupono Low, now in his eighth year with the club and the lone RailHawk remaining from the 2007 inaugural season.
“You look at our facility, and our coaching is second to none in this league,” Clarke says. “We’ve got contacts of people who played here or lived here who want to be back here. They know they’re going to get treated right. They know they’re going to get the right coaching to develop and hopefully move on elsewhere.”
The RailHawks attendance has ebbed and flowed throughout its history. Still, attendance has risen in each of past four seasons since the team was acquired by Traffic Sports USA, a sports management company, and the arrival of team president Curt Johnson, a Raleigh native and member of the N.C. Soccer Hall of Fame. This year, the RailHawks have an average attendance of 4,805 through six regular season games. Last year, the club set its single-match attendance record when 8,121 fans saw them defeat the L.A. Galaxy.
In addition to their regular league play, the RailHawks participate in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, an annual tournament that dates back to 1914 comprising professional and amateur teams throughout the country. While MLS teams usually dominate the tournament’s later rounds, the RailHawks have both hosted and defeated Chivas USA of MLS for two consecutive years and the Galaxy three straight years, including just over a month ago when they ousted a Galaxy lineup that included soccer superstars Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. Carolina has advanced to the quarterfinals of the Open Cup the last two years, losing last month at home to FC Dallas.
Indeed, that loss to Dallas snapped the RailHawks’ 23-game home unbeaten streak, a run that stretched back to the end of the 2012 season. Carolina plays an exciting, fast-paced offense that suits the spacious WakeMed Soccer Stadium pitch. But as good as Carolina has been at home, they have been equally woeful on the road: the RailHawks last Saturday’s dramatic 1-0 victory at the New York Cosmos was only the second away game Carolina has won over the past two seasons.
With this year’s Open Cup run behind them, the RailHawks are focused on the remainder of the NASL regular season and trying to earn a spot in the league’s four-team postseason playoffs. The rest of the regular season includes seven more home games, starting this Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rowdies followed by Aug. 16 against FC Edmonton.
“We put a team on the field that the fans will be proud of, they’ll want to support and they’ll want to get behind,” Clarke says. “No matter how good the team is, without our supporters we’re only half as good. We need them.”
Those making a trip to WakeMed Soccer Park for a RailHawks match would do well to heed a few fan tips:
• Arrive early - The points of ingress and egress for the park are limited off Chatham St. in Cary and can get quite congested for games involving large attendances. Be safe and arrive at least an hour before kickoff. You’ll avoid a traffic jam entering the park, find a better parking space and beat the long lines at concession stands. Or, arrive even earlier to join the array of tailgaters in the parking lot.
• Seating - Buying a seat in the west stands allows you to have the setting sun at your back instead in your face throughout the first half. Also, the cheapest seats in the house are $10 general admission seating in the bleachers behind the north goal; arrive early and you’ll have your pick of seat. Last, the TSF supporters sit in section 309 and are a lot of fun to be around. But if you’re not a fan of drums, cymbals, flags, constant chanting and the occasional smoke bomb, consider that in choosing your seating section.
• Online tickets - Purchase your tickets online through CarolinaRailHawks.com instead of waiting to stand in oftentimes long gameday lines at the box office. You’ll have to pay a small surcharge, but tickets are $2 cheaper if purchased in advance online. Also, you’re able to see what seats are available and pick your own.
- Neil Morris, who contributes film reviews for The Sanford Herald, has covered the Carolina RailHawks and U.S. soccer in general since 2009.