CARY — These are exciting times for the Carolina RailHawks. You need only see their jerseys, which alternate between orange and blue, to know why.
The team wears orange in league play and blue when it’s playing in the U.S. Open Cup.
In both cases, the RailHawks could close in on a title in the next month.
“As an organization, we want to play in big games,” team president Curt Johnson said. “We’ve got two big games this week.”
There isn’t time to focus on one over the other – or has the team already picked one? The answer may surprise.
“Our main focus is still the season,” captain Floyd Franks said with conviction. “Even though we have a big game at (Major League Soccer’s Real) Salt Lake (Wednesday), the biggest game is at home with Atlanta (on Saturday).”
With two games remaining in the North American Soccer League spring season, Carolina is two points ahead of the second-place Atlanta Silverbacks.
The spring-season winner will host the NASL’s championship game in November against the fall-season (August-November) winner. Meanwhile, the 100th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup continues Wednesday and Carolina is one of eight teams left. Six Major League Soccer teams remain, including Real Salt Lake, where the RailHawks will travel next.
Carolina will be a big underdog, but a win would secure a home game in the semifinals against one of two other MLS teams: Portland Timbers or FC Dallas.
The Open Cup may have the bigger teams and bigger stage, but it’s also harder for lower-division teams to win. MLS teams enter the bracket in the round of 32; Carolina started in the round of 64. The RailHawks have taken down two straight MLS teams, but anything beyond that seems like a bonus.
“Before the season started, our goal was to win three rounds because we won two last year,” Franks said.
The new NASL split-season format is a new twist on the old 28-30 game season plus playoffs. The playoffs caused NASL teams to lose money due to travel expenses and too short of a turnaround to market the next game.
If the RailHawks beat Atlanta at home Saturday, they’ll lock up the spring-season title and the front office will have four months to sell tickets to the Soccer Bowl at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Saturday’s game serves as a semifinal. “It’s going to be an incredible atmosphere and we’re going to play for the spring championship,” Johnson said. “That’s a beautiful thing.”
Going back-and-forth between the more-important-than-ever early-season league games and going up against MLS teams in the Open Cup can be draining. Recent hamstring injuries to defender Julius James and midfielder Tiyi Shipalane have come at a bad time. Shipalane has almost singlehandedly beaten MLS teams in the Open Cup with his lightning-quick step-over. “We miss Tiyi, there’s no sugarcoating that,” Franks said.
But Franks said the team still enjoys the position it’s in.
Carolina is 8-0-0 at home since the regular season started, and that’s where they’ll play Saturday to claim a spot in the title.
On Wednesday, it has nothing to lose at Real Salt Lake – second in the MLS West – in the U.S. Open Cup.
It’s been harder than ever to do well in both the season and Open Cup competitions, and the RailHawks have made the best of both.
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