Amid all the changes for the Carolina RailHawks, with a new coaching staff and only a handful of players back from last season, one difference stands out.
“Obviously, you’d say the results, for sure,” said Nick Zimmerman, one of only seven returning players. “Seven games in without a win.”
A quarter of the way through the first season of the RailHawks’ new era, they’re still winless and in last place in the NASL, dubbed the “FailHawks” by gloating rival fans. Ouch.
A year ago, in their final year under Martin Rennie, with a team that returned largely intact from the season before, the RailHawks were 6-1-1 through seven games. This year, in their first year under Colin Clarke, with an almost entirely new roster, they’re 0-4-4. These growing pains really hurt.
“I fully believe in this side,” Clarke said. “I believe we’ll be fine. Our goal is to win the championship, that hasn’t changed, and we still believe we can do that.”
Meanwhile, Clarke’s former team, the Puerto Rico Islanders, is in first place. Double ouch.
“It’s going to take time,” Zimmerman said. “The hardest thing is to score goals, and we’re scoring goals. The other parts will come.”
Which is another way of saying the RailHawks haven’t been able to stop a tricycle from pedaling through their defense, giving up an average of more than two goals per game. That’s somewhat understandable considering two key defensive players have spent much of the year on the sidelines.
Phenom Gale Agbossoumonde didn’t play in the team’s first six games because of turf toe, but made his debut in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Minnesota, and he’s shown in training why he’s considered one of the top young American defenders.
Greg Shields, meanwhile, has missed time with a hamstring injury, and the 35-year-old Scot’s experience is sorely missed on a team that is not only far younger than RailHawks teams of the past, but also basically starting from scratch.
“It’s a whole different team, a whole new dynamic,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not an expansion team, but you’ve got three or four guys from last year who are here, everyone else is mix and match. It’s one of those situations where it’s going to take time, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
An adjustment period as the team coalesces and the players settle into their roles is totally expected and normal. No one expected it to last this long, though, and the circumstances have become increasingly painful.
Two weeks ago, at home against Fort Lauderdale, the RailHawks were up 3-1 in the second half. They gave up two late goals and gave away two points in a 3-3 draw. Two weeks ago in Edmonton, they dominated much of the game but lost 3-0 after giving up a long-range free kick.
“I feel sorry for them,” Clarke said. “They keep putting all the work in, and keep shooting themselves in the foot. It’s a more of a mental thing right now.”
“If you would have asked anybody if they thought we were going to be where we are, I’d be shocked if anybody said yes,” Zimmerman said. “Last year we peaked early in the year and tailed off at the end. Our ultimate goal is to win a title, and if we keep getting better every week, we’ll be at our best at the end.”