The Carolina RailHawks finished last year the same way they had the year before – with U.S. Open Cup victories against various Major League Soccer teams but one spot outside the North American Soccer League’s postseason.
The club enters its ninth year in Cary with a bigger budget than last year, as promised by the team’s owner, Traffic Sports USA. Traffic Sports sold the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and are able to devote more funding to the RailHawks, who brought in experienced players to shore up certain positions.
As the season gets ready to start Saturday at 1 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park, here are five things to look for.
1. A full year of Nacho Novo
There aren’t many players in the NASL as talented as striker Nacho Novo, 36, who joined the team late last season and showed flashes of brilliance in his eight games. He scored three goals, including a back-heel goal. Only a fingertip-save stopped him from netting a 50-yard strike.
Novo, who made his name starring for Rangers FC in Scotland, started three games last year. Whether he starts or not, he gives the RailHawks a creative scorer – words only reserved for midfielder Tiyi Shipalane over the past two seasons.
2. Will the defense improve?
The RailHawks gave up 43 goals last season, the most among teams that finished in the top six.
Carolina lost both goalkeepers. Starter Akira Fitzgerald got his break in Major League Soccer, and U.S. Open Cup hero Scott Goodwin will get more playing time in Division 3.
The RailHawks brought in two of the best players from Division 3. Hunter Gilstrap, 31, is a former goalkeeper of the year, and Brian Sylvestre, 22, is a former member of the U.S. U17 and U20 national teams.
Center back Daniel Scott, versatile Connor Tobin and left back Kupono Low, known as Mr. RailHawk, are back to retain their starting spots. But there will be at least one new face this year. “Futty” Danso, brought in from MLS’ Portland Timbers, has talent to take over a center back spot.
MLS veteran Blake Wagner and new signee Wes Knight could start as well.
The biggest factors in improving the defense might be holding midfielders Neil Hlavaty and Chris Nurse, two NASL veterans. Leo Osaki, who proved worthy of a starting spot late last season, will have to fight off both for playing time.
3. New arrivals could bring the goals
The RailHawks spent more for attacking players this summer.
Mark Anderson, a nemesis of the RailHawks for a few seasons with Fort Lauderdale, should give the team another threat in the midfield to help draw teams away from Shipalane.
Former RailHawk Austin Da Luz is back and has proven to be a catalyst of the offense. Nazmi Albadawi, 23, was a bright spot last year as he held down a starting spot.
NASL veteran Simone Bracalello and former MLS player Wells Thompson will try to help Novo at forward.
4. Postseason pressure
Last year’s team had one of the smallest payrolls in the league but beat those odds to finish fifth. The NASL, which has no salary cap, has become more of an arms race with Tampa Bay, New York, San Antonio and Minnesota (who will join MLS in 2017) spending big.
Now that the RailHawks are closer to that level, will coach Colin Clarke – in his fourth season – be able to break through?
Carolina has had more Open Cup success than its NASL peers, making the quarterfinals in back-to-back years. But NASL success has eluded the team in the past two seasons as it has failed to make the four-team playoffs.
The four NASL teams in the playoffs are the spring season champs, fall season champs and two teams with the best overall records outside of the other two.
5. Enjoy more games in more ways
The NASL reached an agreement with ESPN to broadcast all games – except those hosted by the New York Cosmos, Ottawa Fury and FC Edmonton – on ESPN3.com.
When it comes to viewing the games in person, perhaps even more important is the agreement the team has with the Town of Cary to keep all U.S. Open Cup home games in the main stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Last year’s home Open Cup game against the Los Angeles Galaxy was held in the smaller Koka Booth Stadium behind the main field while the stadium was being resodded.
Should the Galaxy or another big-name team come to Cary for the tournament, it will play in front of as many fans as Carolina can fit in the main 10,000-seat stadium.
Times for home games are listed below. Ticket prices vary. For ticket information, including season passes, go to www.carolinarailhawks.com or call the box office at 919-459-8144.
Saturday, April 4: Ottawa Fury (1 p.m.)
Sunday, April 12: at FC Edmonton
Saturday, April 18: Atlanta Silverbacks (7:30 p.m.)
Saturday, April 25: at Indy Eleven
Saturday, May 2: Tampa Bay Rowdies (7:30 p.m.)
Saturday, May 9: at San Antonio Scorpions
Saturday, May 16: New York Cosmos (7:30 p.m.)
Saturday, May 23: at Fort Lauderdale Strikers
Saturday, May 30: at Jacksonville Armada
Saturday, June 6: Minnesota United (7:30 p.m.)
Saturday, July 4: Minnesota United (7:30 p.m.)
Wednesday, July 8: Fort Lauderdale Strikers (7:30 p.m.)
Saturday, July 11: at Indy Eleven
Saturday, July 18: San Antonio Scorpions (7:30 p.m.)
Saturday, July 25: at Ottawa Fury
Saturday, Aug. 1: Tampa Bay Rowdies (7:30 p.m.)
Sunday, Aug. 16: at FC Edmonton
Wednesday, Aug. 19: at Jacksonville Armada
Saturday, Aug. 22: New York Cosmos (7:30 p.m.)
Sunday, Aug. 30: at New York Cosmos
Friday, Sept. 4: Atlanta Silverbacks (7:30 p.m.)
Wednesday, Sept. 9: at San Antonio Scorpions
Saturday, Sept. 12: at Minnesota United
Saturday, Sept. 19: at Atlanta Silverbacks
Saturday, Sept. 26: Ottawa Fury FC (7:30 p.m.)
Saturday, Oct. 10: Jacksonville Armada (7:30 p.m.)
Wednesday, Oct. 14: at FC Edmonton
Saturday, Oct. 17: at Fort Lauderdale Strikers
Saturday, Oct. 24: at Tampa Bay Rowdies
Friday, Oct. 30: Indy Eleven (7:30 p.m.)