Luke DeCock

With RailHawks secure, commissioner breaths sigh of relief — DeCock

Carolina's Matt Watson, left, keeps the ball from New England's Scott Caldwell during the first half at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
Carolina's Matt Watson, left, keeps the ball from New England's Scott Caldwell during the first half at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Another MLS team came through WakeMed Soccer Park for a U.S. Open Cup match, and there was nothing new about that. The Carolina RailHawks have more than held their own against top-level competition over the years.

For NASL commissioner Bill Peterson, everything else about his visit was new. How many times had he been here, reassuring fans over an uncertain ownership situation and the future of a franchise that was at one point, essentially, for sale on eBay? No more.

Halfway through their first season under Stephen Malik’s ownership, the RailHawks haven’t quite achieved the level of on-field success they had hoped, even with Malik’s money newly bolstering the payroll – despite a 4-0-0 start to the season – but they’ve gone from being one of NASL’s shakiest franchises to part of its foundation.

A healthy crowd attended Wednesday’s game despite threatening storms and the inevitable weather delay less than 10 minutes in, expecting to see the RailHawks take down another MLS team. They went into the game with a 6-5 all-time record against MLS teams in the Open Cup, although that’s slightly inflated by their dominance of the Los Angeles Galaxy over the years.

“This is everything you’d ever expect,” Peterson said. “You’ve got an owner in Steve Malik who’s local, passionate about the sport, passionate about the community, has his head around the issues of a pro sports team very quickly, is very clear about what he wants to do. He’s got a great staff here who have built a great foundation, and now with Steve’s resources they’re going to take this to a much bigger place.”

After being at risk of evaporating entirely in 2011 before being saved by the Brazilian sports agency Traffic, which then ran things on a shoestring budget as it tried to divest itself of two of the three NASL franchises it owned, then back in limbo as Traffic was caught up in the FIFA corruption scandal before Malik stepped in – it’s been a long, long way to this point for the RailHawks.

The RailHawks’ stability is important for NASL, which will drop to 12 teams when Minnesota leaves for MLS but is looking to expand to 18 teams, perhaps as quickly as next season, although that’s probably overly optimistic. The RailHawks, too, are looking to expand, exploring options to bring other teams to WakeMed – women’s soccer, lacrosse, rugby – still with an eye to an eventual long-term transition to MLS, should the opportunity one day arise.

Under Malik, the RailHawks have gone from a staff of less than 10 to more than 20, moving into spacious new offices at the same Cary building as Malik’s company, Medfusion, and bolstering long-neglected basics of building a sports franchise. The headliner: a visit from West Ham of the English Premiership next month, a first for the Triangle.

“He’s got a really good vision for what he wants to achieve,” team president Curt Johnson said, “and he’s willing to put in the resources to elevate us to being truly professional in the key areas like marketing and game-day experience.”

That extends to significant investment in the payroll, giving fifth-year manager Colin Clarke his strongest squad in his time with the team. That led to the undefeated start to the season, but a lack of goal-scoring sunk the RailHawks to a 4-2-4 first-half finish, good for only seventh place. As Johnson pointed out, the RailHawks weren’t the only team spending more money in the increasingly competitive NASL.

Under Traffic, the offensive issues would have been difficult to fix at midseason – or at any point, really.

“That’s the beauty of the situation,” Johnson said. “In years past, we really would have had very little opportunity to make any changes at this point. Unless it was a like-for-like trade, very similar contracts, basically x-for-x in terms of money. Steve is a part of these discussions and he sees we need to score more goals and he’s willing to put some resources behind that.”

So that’s changed, too. The intent is there. Now the results need to follow.

“We’re looking forward to seeing what they do with it,” Johnson said. “I think it’ll be great.”

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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