CARY — A year ago, Mark Schulte was one of almost two dozen new players who arrived as part of the Carolina RailHawks' complete rebuilding. Not all of them lasted long with the club.
Those who did were part of the most successful season in the franchise's three-year history. As the RailHawks prepare to open their fourth season tonight at WakeMed Soccer Park against AC St. Louis, they're hoping last season's success with new players - including the league's best home record - translates into new fans this season.
"I know we're going to have a lot bigger crowds this year, and hopefully noisier," said Schulte, the RailHawks captain. "Hopefully they'll have a great time, because we're looking to put out a product that's entertaining to watch for soccer fans and families."
Selling soccer in the United States has always been about finding that balance between families and young adults, newcomers and purists. All the bells and whistles will be there, still, for the curious. Now, the RailHawks have a chance to add winning to the mix.
With 15 players back from a team that outscored the opposition 43-17 on its way to a second-place finish and first-round playoff loss, expectations couldn't be higher. On the outside, at least.
On the inside, second-year coach Martin Rennie and his players say nothing has changed. They were expecting to challenge for a championship last season, even if no one else thought they could.
"Now, it's more finding the little pieces that held us back, whether it's a little bit of chemistry or understanding how each other plays - a little bit of polishing, really," Schulte said. "We've got a good piece of work here. We've just got to polish it, refine it a little bit."
To find those missing pieces, Rennie went far, far afield, as far as Malta, Denmark and Japan. The RailHawks also will have lanky forward Gregory Richardson for a full season. In his second-half stint last summer, he proved capable of creating YouTube-worthy moments with the ball at his feet.
On paper, at least, the RailHawks should win a lot of games and score a lot of goals. That should give them as good a chance as anyone at winning the awkwardly named USSF Division 2 Pro League, the interim league created by U.S. Soccer through the one-year shotgun marriage of the old USL and the breakaway NASL, with the RailHawks exiting the former to play a key role in starting the latter.
Having the product on the field taken care of - credit goes to Rennie, who exudes competence and confidence - allowed the RailHawks to delve into that endeavor, among other offseason improvements. Many of those will be readily apparent to fans as soon as tonight: more inflatables for the kids, better food, beer gardens and live bands on weekends for adults.
"Having a winning team without having all of the other elements around it - a strong grassroots marketing campaign, a strong mainstream media presence - is not going to produce the results you want at the gate," new RailHawks chief operating officer Jim Houghton said.
But it sure helps. Rennie, who won a lower-league championship in Cleveland before coming to the RailHawks, knows that as well as anyone.
"[Winning] is not the be-all and end-all," he said. "There's got to be other things working well throughout the whole business, throughout the whole community. But people like to see a team that does well, a team that wins."
The RailHawks have used showmanship to bring fans into the park. Now, with what might be the best team in the league, they should get a chance to see how much winning helps.