Saturday evening, Minnesota United meets its fellow residents of the top of the NASL standings, the Carolina RailHawks. Both teams have two wins and a tie after three games; in fact, both teams have scored five goals and allowed two, and this weekend will be the first chance for either team to get some separation in the standings.
For more on Carolina, I went to J. Mike Blake, a sports reporter for the (Raleigh) News & Observer. He's been covering the RailHawks, and he was nice enough to give me the lowdown on what's going on soccer-wise in the Research Triangle.
1. There's been a lot of upheaval in second-division American soccer over the past few years, between name changes, ownership troubles, and team moves. Yet Carolina has seemingly stayed steady, and now has an expanded soccer-specific stadium to boot. Why are things so stable in Cary?
Well, the RailHawks looked like they might fold about three years ago, before Traffic Sports USA purchased the team (they also own a majority share of two other NASL clubs). So things weren't always stable in Carolina. The RailHawks also benefit from the town of Cary's goal to attract NCAA College Cups, which meant expanding WakeMed Soccer Park.
2. Four of the regular RailHawks starting lineup are recent Wake Forest players - Akira Fitzgerald, Austin da Luz, Zach Schilawski, and Nick Millington. Is there a pipeline there, or is it merely coincidence?
No coincidence. All of these Wake players, plus other N.C. college graduates on the team, played for the RailHawks U23s under Dewan Bader. Bader is in his third year as a Carolina assistant coach.
3. Striker Nick Zimmerman led Carolina with 15 goals last year, but hasn't played yet this year, after going on some MLS trials over the winter. When will he be back?
Zimmerman was hurt in one of those trials. So at first first, he was rehabbing with Sporting Kansas City. Now he's rehabbing with the RailHawks, which means he will return to Carolina - the team just isn't sure when that will be.
4. What does former Edmonton defender, and 2012 NASL Best XI member, Paul Hamilton bring to the team - and why did Carolina choose to bring him in, even though they signed him one day before the season opener?
The biggest offseason need was a center back, easily the biggest weakness of last season. With Hamilton, they finally have someone back there who they can trust game-to-game. And he's experienced enough to help some of the younger players back there, like Austen King.
5. Who is the key player for the Railhawks - the bellwether, the one player to keep an eye on?
In these last few games you'd have to say Brian Shriver. Shriver's a winger who has scored three times in the last two games - one was a PK, the other a wondrous 20-yard free kick. Another option: Austin da Luz in central midfield has been a catalyst and pinpoint passer.
My thanks to Mike for taking the time to educate us on the RailHawks.