Landon Donovan wasn’t supposed to be in Cary this week, but his surprise omission from the U.S. World Cup roster helped set up an unprecedented sight in the Triangle on Tuesday.
The Carolina RailHawks will host the Los Angeles Galaxy, who plan on playing Donovan and international star Robbie Keane in the round of 16 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The game will be played on a cozy secondary field with limited seating as the RailHawks’ primary field undergoes re-sodding that was planned months in advance.
RailHawks president Curt Johnson said they needed a three-week window to tear out the old sod, replace it and have it take. Carolina hosted Chivas USA in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup on June 14 and the field was torn up shortly thereafter.
The Town of Cary re-sods the field every year, and the meticulous care is one reason the stadium has become a home to NCAA’s College Cup in men’s and women’s soccer. Usually, the re-sodding coincides with a RailHawks road trip. But that wasn’t an option this time.
The timing, while unfortunate for the Galaxy visit, will pay off months from now when the soccer park hosts major tournaments the town is known for, said Doug McRainey, the town’s parks and recreation director.
“There are a lot of demands now on that facility,” McRainey said. “Being year-round, hosting major events in the fall with the ACC and College Cup, and the need to maintain a certain level (for the RailHawks) … it’s tough.”
Johnson said he called other soccer facilities in the Triangle. Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina were not available. Carter-Finley Stadium, home of the Wolfpack, hosted an exhibition in 2011, but is too narrow.
“That would not have been approved by U.S. Soccer for an Open Cup game,” Johnson said.
Field 2 has hosted N.C. High School Athletic Association state championship games and a few U.S. Open Cup games, the last in 2010, but always against teams from lower divisions.
“When you weighed all of the logistical obstacles, the best option was Field 2,” Johnson said.
Galaxy’s new approach
As evidenced by its willingness to bring Donovan and Keane, the Galaxy has a lot on the line. It started last season, when the team failed to win the MLS Cup or Supporters’ Shield , and lost its spot in CONCACAF Champions League.
The CONCACAF Champions League pits the top North American clubs against each other. There are four automatic bids, including one to the winner of the U.S. Open Cup.
The Galaxy’s quickest path to getting back into the Champions League is taking the U.S. Open Cup seriously. If Los Angeles beats the RailHawks, it needs just four more wins.
Donovan told the Galaxy’s website he hopes to start.
“We’re all expecting to play in this game. We’re sick of losing to Carolina and we’re sick of going out of the Open Cup early,” he said.
In the past two years, the Galaxy has sent mostly a team of second- and third-string players to face Carolina and lost 2-1 in 2012 and 2-0 last year. Even Galaxy coach Bruce Arena didn’t make the trip in 2013.
More than 7,900 people packed into WakeMed Soccer Stadium each of the prior years to see the Galaxy, though this year’s set attendance will be around 3,000, Johnson said.
RailHawks’ Cup success
This will be the third consecutive year the RailHawks will have hosted Chivas USA and the Galaxy in U.S. Open Cup play.
The RailHawks have had some success in one of the oldest soccer tournaments in the world.
The team lost in the quarterfinals last year and went to the semifinals in 2007. This is the tournament’s round of 16. It started with 80 teams, the most in the 101-year history of the Cup.
The RailHawks are 15-6 all-time in Cup play. They are 5-4 all-time against teams from MLS and 5-2 when at home.
They defeated Chivas USA, another MLS team, 2-1 in the fourth round after winning penalty kicks 3-2 with backup goalkeeper Scott Goodwin.
Goodwin, a Broughton High and North Carolina product, will start again as Akira Fitzgerald sits out with a thumb injury.
“He’s a great keeper, and he comes in and he works hard every day. The two of them push each other. All of his hard work has paid off,” RailHawks coach Colin Clarke said.
Cary native Zack Schilawski, the lone RailHawks goal-scorer in the Chivas USA victory, has been on both sides.
“It’s tough for them. It’s like a lose-lose. If you win, you’re expected to win. If you lose, everyone is like, ‘Oh, you lost to the guys from the second division.’ So we take advantage of that, and make sure we’re up for it,” Schilawski said.
Andy Specht and Brennan Doherty contributed to this report.