Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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It's a big week for Minnesota, as they head to Carolina on Saturday to take on the RailHawks, one of their rivals for the NASL spring-season title. To get the lay of the land in Carolina, I spoke with Neil Morris, who covers the team for Indy Week, and who is one of the best NASL writers you'll find. The Q&A:
Jon: My first question - why is Carolina seemingly always good? The last four years they've been second, first, first, and fourth in the regular-season standings, and they're right back in it again this year.
Neil: That wasn't always the case. The first two years of their existence they didn't make the playoffs, and had very poor losing records - the irony being that, in their debut season in 2007, they finished 8th in the league and had a losing record, but somehow made the semifinals of the US Open Cup. It was a bit of anomaly.
There are three main reasons, some more significant than others. I think the most minor reason is that Carolina has a backdrop and a base of soccer academies and good soccer universities. They don't necessarily generate talent for the RailHawks, but what they do is they generate homegrown folks, and they generate people who played college soccer at Wake Forest or North Carolina or Duke or wherever, who when they need to revitalize their career or they're looking for a place to play, they go with where they know. So you have a great number of players who were developed through Capital Area Soccer League, which is one of the best in the country, or played at one of these ACC soccer schools, who then will come and play with the local soccer team. So that gives you sort of a baseline of talent.
Beyond that, the two biggest reasons are number one, Carolina over the past four years and now in a fifth year have had two of the best coaches in Division 2 soccer. Prior ownership brought in Martin Rennie from Cleveland City in Division 3, and he helmed Carolina for three years and made the playoffs every year. He never won an out-and-out championship, but they were one of the best teams in the league, and he was a great manager and a great assessor of talent. After he left, once Traffic Sports [the owner of the RailHawks] brought Curt Johnson in as team president, he had a prior relationship with Colin Clarke that helped lure him here. And of course Clarke's resume speaks for itself. I think the quality of head coaches has played a big role.
I think the other thing that cannot be discounted is the quality of the facilities. WakeMed Soccer Park, not just its main stadium but its outlying practice fields, are legitimately world-class turf. I have talked to many players who say they love playing here on these fields. One, it's easier to play soccer, and two, it's better for their health. They're not playing on artificial turf, they're not playing on some hacked-up field that they're worried about stepping in a hole or something. The training facilities are better than almost all other D2 clubs. Once you get past Division 1, which is another level, once you get to Division 2, WakeMed Soccer Park is sort of the cream of the crop. It looks better, and it's a warm-weather climate, and players just want to play here. If the money's equal - and it isn't always equal - but if it is equal, that's a huge draw.
JM: This is a huge week for Carolina - Minnesota on Saturday, a US Open quarterfinal on Wednesday at Real Salt Lake, and then league leaders Atlanta at home the following Saturday. At this point, how does the team prioritize among these games - and from a fan's perspective, which is more important?
NM: I can't really speak for the team. I think if you talked to Colin Clarke he'd say we're trying to win every game. And that's probably true; I don't think they're going to tank it and play second-string players for any of these games. They're going to marshal their resources, they're not going to be unreasonable about it. I think if you had spoken to fans a couple of weeks ago, I think the entire focus was on US Open Cup, given that Carolina had two straight home games against MLS teams, with good attendances and two wins.
I think approaching this "week of truth," I think the fans' preoccupation is sort of with the league now. The Open Cup game is going to be midweek on the road, in a location that nobody is going to be able to get to, but everybody knows now that we're in the short rows of the league. They have two big home games on back-to-back Saturdays, and the reality is that there's a better chance of winning the spring season than the US Open Cup. And while everybody would love to win all three games, it becomes a matter of reality after awhile. So if you talk priority, I think now that this week is approaching, I think that prioritization with the fans is more with the league.
JM: RailHawks goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald is the only keeper in the league that's played every minute of the season. Is Fitzgerald underrated, overrated, or properly rated?
NM: I think he's getting more properly rated, but I think he's always going to be underrated because of his height. [He's listed at 5'11", but 5'9" might be more appropriate.] I'm not casting aspersions, I've done the same thing. Last year when he was playing limited minutes, I made mention of his height on several occasions. And I think if you watch individual games, there have been times when his height has been a liability. Any deficit in any player's repertoire can cause problems. There are keeers that are not good at coming off their line, there are some that don't have good reflexes. Keeper deficits can result in goals no matter what they are.
How he makes up for it, though, is that his reflexes are extremely fast, he is very fast off his feet - he's a good leaper, but he's a fast leaper, in the sense that he can get off his feet very quickly. He likes to come out, he likes to rush out and come get the ball, which I think is a good attribute when you know how to do it, and he has no problem coming off his line.
His most underrated asset is that he is tremendously adept at organizing the back line. He's a chatterbox back there, in a positive way - he's not just screaming at the back line. Even last year, when he played limited minutes, when he came into the game you could almost see a change in the back line. He's good at organizing, and I've talked to defenders that say, 'We like him sort of talking us up from the back.' That I think is where his big assets lie. I think there's always going to be a prejudice because of his height, no matter at what level, so he'll be perpetually underrated - but I think the league at least has caught on to how good he is. And if Colin Clarke likes him enough to play him every game, then he must be doing something right.
My thanks to Neil for talking me through Carolina.