CARY — After a solid first season in Cary, Carolina RailHawks coach Colin Clarke and company will start the 2013 home campaign on Saturday at 7 p.m. against Edmonton at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The RailHawks opened the season last Saturday with a 0-0 tie at defending North American Soccer League champion Tampa Bay.
While there have been some changes to the league, in membership and format, last year’s group is mostly intact. Can continuity lead to a better RailHawks season than last year’s fourth-place finish?
New format, new strategy
In all six of the RailHawks’ previous seasons, the league format was similar. The regular season’s marathon of games was followed by a six- or eight-team playoff. Carolina was the regular-season champ in 2011 and has been a playoff participant the last four years.
But the NASL is trying something new. The 2013 season will be split into two smaller seasons, spring and fall, and the champions of each will play in a one-game NASL Soccer Bowl hosted by the spring champion.
It’s a format used in leagues in Spain and has some business advantages.
For one, NASL teams will not play in the year’s hottest month, July. Last season, three RailHawks summertime games were delayed or interrupted by thunderstorms.
The previous playoff format was criticized for being too long and expensive for teams. By letting the winner of the spring season host the Soccer Bowl, there is more time for that team to sell tickets and market the game.
The RailHawks only have six new faces from last year’s team.
Veteran forward Nicholas Adderly was brought in, along with four players with Major League Soccer experience – Julius James, Kevin Burns, Ciaran O’Brien and Tim Murray.
The most intriguing addition might be 18-year-old Jake Beckford, a forward who was around the team last year but was unable to sign a professional contract due to his age.
Returning the core
Most of last year’s group returns for another season, but it’s unknown if leading scorer Nick Zimmerman (15 goals) will be one of them as he’s trying out with Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer. Zack Schilawski is fully recovered from a broken foot and should start most games at forward.
Team MVP Tiyi Shipalane, who had several last-minute goals, is back in midfield along with Austin Da Luz and captain Floyd Franks.
Akira Fitzgerald will start as goalkeeper after thriving in spot duty last year.
The back line returns two of the promising young players from a year ago, Jordan Graye and Austen King, but also has veterans Sam Stockley, 35, and assistant coach/player Greg Shields, 36. Kupono Low, 34, returns as the only player left from the franchise’s first season.
Changes to the league
The New York Cosmos’ name is synonymous with early U.S. professional soccer, and this year it’s back. The Cosmos are an expansion NASL franchise but will only play in the fall season.
The Puerto Rico Islanders, which receive much of their funding from its government, will not play this season. Uncertainty surrounded the franchise after the last Puerto Rican election.
Minnesota United FC is a new name for what was previously known as the NSC Minnesota Stars.
Old faces, new places
Carolina has a few former players around the league who will be recognizable to even casual followers.
Etienne Barbara and Pablo Campos, who combined for 35 goals in 2011 at Carolina, have both signed with Minnesota. Edmonton signed former midfielder Chris Nurse.