There’s been plenty of buzz about the changes that new ownership will bring to the RailHawks, and that’s already been reflected on the roster.
The RailHawks have made a number of signings in Stephen Malik’s first offseason as team owner (which can be found here), which leaves a lot to look for heading into 2016.
The revamped defense
A defense that tied for league-high in goals conceded in 2015 – despite a league-leading save total from goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald – has been the focus of general manager Curt Johnson this offseason.
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When the Atlanta Silverbacks ceased operations, the RailHawks swooped in and siphoned their top defensive anchors in team captain Simon Mensing and Paul Black. Carolina also added experienced veterans in Drew Beckie and Kareem Moses, who come south after making 82 combined appearances for Ottawa and Edmonton, respectively, over the past two years.
Connor Tobin returns after leading the RailHawks in minutes and starts in 2015, meaning it’ll likely be a battle between new signings Moses, Mensing and Beckie for the second center back spot on the backline. Beckie – who can also play right back – will push Steven Miller for playing time in that position as well.
Who fills Novo’s scoring void?
With Nacho Novo, an old but savvy forward in his golden years of playing, moving back overseas, a huge hole is left in terms of scoring. Novo finished third in the NASL in goals during 2015 with 11. Excluding winger Tiyi Shipalane (seven goals, nine assists), the rest of the players on the team – including new signings – scored only 13 league goals in 2015.
Brian Shriver, projected to earn the starting spot at striker, once earned a Golden Boot award in his previous stay with the RailHawks in 2013, but managed only five goals in 43 appearances (30 starts) during the last two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Shriver has shined in the preseason, notching four assists in five fixtures after having only three in 113 NASL appearances.
Nazmi Albdawi has the most potential to fill the void and break double-digit goals for the first time in his career, ending 2015 hot by scoring all six of his goals in his final eight appearances.
Who starts in the midfield?
Outside of Shipalane, Matt Watson – who is coming off a stint in Major League Soccer – and 2015 “NASL Best XI” member James Marcelin, the competition is wide open for who will earn a starting position in the midfield.
Colin Clarke has traditionally favored a 4-5-1 formation, and with the lack of depth at striker, it’s likely what fans will see at opening kickoff, leaving two spots up for grabs. Alex Pérez, a Spaniard, excelled as defensive midfielder in his five-game spell at the tail end of 2015, will be competing with other returning players in Albadawi, Austin da Luz and Guatemalan international Marvin Ceballos for the final two spots.
Can Carolina keep consistent results for a full year?
After finishing third in the spring season standings and starting the fall season 2-1-1, the RailHawks earned a paltry five points in their next 11 outings before winning two of their last four games.
The lack of consistency contributed to the RailHawks’ early exit in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a competition that the RailHawks have excelled in historically.
With less distractions and questions off the field and the same coaching staff, Carolina may be able string together more consistent results throughout 2016.
How will attendance fare?
Carolina was ninth in NASL attendance last year, bringing an average of 4,501 fans to WakeMed Soccer Park in 15 league matches.
A common gripe from supporters has been the marketing – or lack thereof – from previous ownership.
“You can’t say we’re a small market, the Triangle has 2 million people ... and yet (Traffic Sports USA) never put the budget together to market us; we should be filling (WakeMed Soccer Park) every game,” said Jeff Woodhead, a member of the Triangle Soccer Fanatics.
With assurances from Malik that marketing efforts will be augmented this year and additions to the new game-day experience, that attendance figure is worth keeping an eye on. WakeMed Soccer Park can be expanded to hold up to 10,000 fans.