Minnesota United heads back to Carolina this week, to revisit the scene of what was eventually understood to be the end of their spring-season title hopes. Up 2-1 with barely eight minutes to play, Minnesota allowed a pair of Brian Shriver goals in the span of two minutes, and lost 3-2. United didn't recover for the rest of the spring, and only now is beginning to climb out of the hole they found themselves in that day.
Carolina, on the other hand, was in first place after that game, a place they retained until the spring's final weekend, when a 2-0 loss at San Antonio allowed Atlanta to snatch the title. The RailHawks bounced back, as they always seem to do, and after three games in the fall season, they're in first place in the league - mostly on the strength of two home wins, which is not a surprise. The RailHawks are undefeated at WakeMed Soccer Park this year, with ten wins in eleven games in all competitions; it's only their road form that kept them from winning the spring title.
To get a little more insight into the RailHawks, I talked to Neil Morris, who covers the team for Indy Week (and who recently wrote this excellent article on the location-less Soccer Hall of Fame that you really should read). The scouting information below all came from him.
Standout: Brian Shriver
Though Shriver's technically a midfielder, he's played at forward this year. He scored five goals last year, but back and knee problems slowed him down as the year progressed. This year, he's finally completely healthy, and has responded by banging in eleven goals to lead the NASL.
Said Morris, "Last year, he was called upon to play a lot of right and left wing. This year, Carolina has a number of players who can fill the wing position for the team and create opportunities. Shriver's been able to station himself in the middle and up top in more of a forward position, so he’s more in a position to score goals."
Strength: Attacking midfield
Carolina deploys a number of different players in midfield - last week against New York, it was Ty Shipalane, Nick Millington, Austin da Luz, and Brenier Ortiz. (Enzo Martinez and Cesar Elizondo have also seen quite a lot of time.) It's a fast, creative group, one that's learned to use the field at Carolina - one of the longest and widest in the league - to its advantage. "I think that’s their biggest strength is to be able to get forward in attack and move the ball and create opportunities," said Morris.
da Luz was sent off last week, and will miss this game due to suspension - but Carolina has plenty of choices to replace him from that group of six.
(It's also worth noting that Morris reported that Bryan Arguez, who the RailHawks acquired from United over the summer break, has been released by mutual consent after starting one game for Carolina.)
Weakness: Finishing chances up front
Last year, defense was Carolina's weakness. The RailHawks allowed 46 goals in 28 matches, tied for worst in the league, but the signing of center back Paul Hamilton from Edmonton seems to have helped shore things up at the back for Carolina. Said Morris, "When all their defenders are healthy, they've got a pretty good back line."
It sounds odd, coming from a team that's had 11 goals from one player, but the thing this year that frustrates the RailHawks fans is the team's inability to finish the scoring chances generated by the attacking midfielders. "Their conversion rate in front of goal has been sorry," said Morris.
Carolina has tried a number of different partnerships up front, with Shriver being the mainstay. Zach Schilawski started most of the spring season, then gave way for two games at the beginning of the fall to Brian Ackley. The two, however, have scored just three goals - one of them Ackley's conversion from the penalty spot last week. Even now, Carolina's second-leading scorer in 2013 is Floyd Franks, who these days is part of Minnesota's midfield.
Nicholas Addlery, who scored 48 goals for now-defunct Puerto Rico over four seasons, could be the forward Carolina's looking for. Unfortunately for the RailHawks, he's been beset by injuries, and hasn't played a minute this season- though he was on the bench and available Saturday. Morris, however, isn't too convinced he's the solution. " I think there’s a lot that’s being put on his shoulders, and I’m not sure that a 31-year-old coming off a season-long knee injury can be expected to help," he said.
Matchup to watch: Carolina's attackers vs. Minnesota's defensive midfield
Minnesota has been deploying midfielders Calum Mallace and Sinisa Ubiparipovic as part of almost a triangle in cnetral midfield, with Ubiparipovic at the front and Mallace and another midfielder - Michael Reed last week - at the back. If they come out in a similar 4-2-1-3 this week, it'll be up to Mallace and Reed to blunt the force of the Carolina midfield before it reaches the United back line.