How many times has it been asked whether the University of Kentucky’s basketball team could beat an NBA team? Or how many points Alabama or Oregon could put up against an NFL defense? Those are entertaining hypotheticals, but they’re likely to remain hypotheticals nonetheless.
Soccer is a bit different. In few other sports are David-and-Goliath curiosities so frequently and willingly tested on the pitch. No doubt many soccer fans have wondered how their club stacks up against the world’s best.
West Ham United’s visit to play the Carolina RailHawks at Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park Tuesday will provide Triangle soccer fans with an answer.
“(West Ham’s) payroll is in a different stratosphere than the Carolina RailHawks,” RailHawks President Curt Johnson said. “Most everything about their organization is different from ours in terms of the business side of it. But what’s similar is that we play with a round ball, two goals, and a field that’s approximately 120 by 75 feet.”
The seventh-place finishers in the English Premier League, regarded by many as the highest-quality soccer league in the world, will take on 2015’s seventh-place finishers in the North American Soccer League, the United States’ second division. The international friendly is being billed more as a cultural event than a competitive match, although the RailHawks have enjoyed some attention for their successes against one of the Major League Soccer’s top sides, the L.A. Galaxy. In 2008, the club’s under-23 squad even topped English side Burnley, which has since been promoted to the Premier League.
The RailHawks have drawn international talent to the Triangle before, but the East London club’s visit is the first by a Premier League team. Johnson said the Railhawks’ prior ownership didn’t have the resources – “Well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Johnson said – to pay the appearance fees commanded by such high-profile teams.
But software entrepreneur Stephen Malik, who was installed last year as the team’s owner, has brought in the capital to invest in these kinds of events, and he’s been rewarded thus far by the public’s response. The game’s 10,000 tickets are expected to sell out – fewer than 1,000 remained as of July 5.
“Our current average ticket price (for this match) is over $50,” Johnson said. “Some would say, ‘Gosh, that’s a negative – those are expensive tickets.’ But in order to have the game make financial sense, that’s the kind of average ticket price we need to charge.
“We’re not going to make a windfall, but we are going to make money on the game,” he said. “It’s huge to see this community support a game at that level.”
Top level teams don’t always bring their top players to friendlies, but Johnson confirmed that West Ham’s biggest names – striker Andy Carroll and midfielder Mark Noble – will indeed make the trip to Cary. The Cary game ends the Hammers’ stateside tour that began with a match against Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders July 5, which the Sounders won 3-0.
That’s further reason for supporters like Jarrett Campbell, president of the RailHawk supporters group Triangle Soccer Fanatics, to hope for a competitive match.
“It is a preseason match, and (West Ham) needs to get match fit, so they’re probably not as sharp as they could be,” Campbell said. “If they played West Ham 10 times, I’d expect West Ham to win the majority, but any given night, you know?”
The match is part of a larger effort by Malik to build up the Railhawks and, more broadly, soccer culture in the Triangle, where fans might know West Ham’s roster better than the RailHawks’. The area led the charge in the early days of the sport’s popularity in the U.S., Johnson said, but has since been eclipsed in investment and popularity by similarly sized metro areas such as Kansas City and Portland. Efforts to bring an MLS team to the region have been hampered by the lack of a suitable stadium, but that could change if events such as this are seen by investors as proof positive of an eager market.
Johnson said the team already is in talks to bring another internationally known team to the Triangle next year. West Ham, he said, was the most receptive of several Premier League teams the Railhawks contacted late last year.
A “Support Diversity” tailgate will be held before the game, and donations will be accepted to benefit EqualityNC, an LGBT advocacy group. The RailHawks organization has denounced House Bill 2, and Malik told WRAL in a June 29 interview about his displeasure with the North Carolina legislature’s voting rights and abortion laws.
“Orlando City and MLS as a whole did some incredible things in support of the LGBT community,” said Johnson, referring to the Orlando nightclub shooting.
“Soccer has, I would say, a very tolerant, very diverse mentality,” he said. “But having said that, soccer mirrors the world, including the problems of racism, religious prejudice, discrimination. There’s a long history of activism as well as antagonism.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan
The details: July 12, 8 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park, 201 Soccer Park Drive, Cary. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: Tickets are available in dwindling numbers from the RailHawks’ box office. Prices are $35-$55. All lower-level sideline seats have been sold, but seats remain in the East Stand’s upper level and along the endlines. Call 919-459-8144.
Parking: $10, cash only. Lots open at 4 p.m.
Shuttle: There are free Fan Buses leaving from the Carolina Ale House in Raleigh and the Tribeca Tavern in Cary with stops along the way. See RailHawks website for stops. Three buses will leave from London Bridge Pub, 110 E. Hargett St., Raleigh. Access is first-come, first-serve. They will leave at 6 p.m. once they are full
Festivities: Tailgates are permitted. The RailHawks team is organizing a “Support Diversity” tailgate with area supporters groups. That starts at 6 p.m. in Lot C on the east side of the stadium. Fireworks will follow the match. ESPN sports radio personalities Joe Ovies and Adam Gold will be broadcasting their afternoon show from outside the box office.