Luke DeCock

DeCock: Carolina RailHawks pondering future, for all the right reasons

Fans react to the goal scored by Carolina's Brian Shriver (21) in the second half. The Carolina Railhawks took on the Los Angeles Galaxy in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in Cary on May 29, 2013.
Fans react to the goal scored by Carolina's Brian Shriver (21) in the second half. The Carolina Railhawks took on the Los Angeles Galaxy in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in Cary on May 29, 2013. 2013 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The Carolina RailHawks return to WakeMed Soccer Park for their eighth season Saturday night, which in terms of longevity alone makes them a rousing success in an area with a dubious history of short-lived sports teams.

The team has survived ownership changes and massive shake-ups in its league, only to come out the other side more stable than ever. The RailHawks have put down roots, which means the conversation can now evolve from “Can they survive?” to “What’s next?”

Traffic Sports USA, the South American soccer conglomerate that saved the RailHawks from near-extinction four years ago, continues to seek local investors, whether as a partner or to buy the team entirely. Without that, it’s hard to see an endgame at this point, but there are several possibilities.

“We’re at this really interesting tipping point that is mirrored throughout the country,” RailHawks president Curt Johnson said.

The most glamorous is an eventual bid for an MLS franchise. The RailHawks offer a turnkey fan base and a stadium that can be upgraded to MLS standards. They sit in a soccer-savvy market that would be ripe for the league, offering a natural geographic bridge between DC United and the ongoing southern expansion to Atlanta, Orlando and South Florida.

With an ownership group in Charlotte making noise about bidding for an MLS team, the Triangle is at risk of being passed over, which would be tragic. Until someone steps forward with $100 million dollars or so to bankroll an MLS bid, that will remain a danger – and MLS here will be merely a dream.

And as the RailHawks might say, what’s so great about MLS anyway? The NASL, the 10-team league that emerged from two years of turmoil, has teams in New York and South Florida, continues to add popular expansion teams in places like Indianapolis and Ottawa, could end up with 18 or 20 teams and even has designs on a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, which would pit its champion against the best teams in North and Central America, including MLS and Mexico.

NASL commissioner Bill Peterson said Thursday he believes entry into the CCL is a realistic possibility within a year or two, arguing that the NASL has emerged as the third-best league in the CONCACAF despite its second-division classification by US Soccer. If other NASL teams build stadiums like WakeMed Soccer Park and payrolls continue to rise, perhaps there would be less reason to spend the money to bring an MLS franchise here. (A mass-market national television deal for NASL would help as well; ESPN’s promotion of MLS is invaluable.)

Meanwhile, the RailHawks continue to put down deeper roots, combining with youth-soccer juggernaut CASL on an elite youth program, pushing hard to build rapport with the Hispanic community and proposing a full-time soccer school for Triangle teens that offers the team nebulous short-term benefits but could potentially pay long-term dividends.

“In order to take this team to the next level, we are going to actively look for local partners,” Traffic Sports USA president Aaron Davidson said. “It’s important. That’s one of the things that’s been missing the last four years, that local ownership flair and emotion.”

Whichever direction the RailHawks end up going, it’ll take someone from the Triangle to point the way. Davidson said he thinks it could happen within the next year. Traffic deserves credit for saving and stabilizing the franchise, and bankrolling what should be another competitive team, but permanent ownership of the RailHawks was never the goal.

The question remains – is anyone here willing to take over and figure out what comes next?