Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Carolina Railhawks. Past, Present and Possibilities of MLS

Currently the Carolina RailHawks are the class of the NASL. They sit atop the table in the North American Soccer League after an impressive first half of the season which saw them go on a 10 game win streak and a record 13 unbeaten matches. Naturally, the questions begin to come about the future... Questions about the future of players, of coaches, management and ownership.
I sat down with RailHawks President and MLS management veteran Curt Johnson to look into what the organization is doing both on and off the field. We discussed the team in depth, past and present.Curt came to the team when the entire league was in disarray, including the Carolina RailHawks. Financial trials caused problems and questioned the team’s continuity. At one point, even the team’s brand was up to sale for the public. Traffic Sports USA, who supports several NASL teams became involved.
An effort was made though by Traffic Sports and Johnson to keep the team’s name, colors and brand that was established.  “We analyzed what it would mean to lose the name and we all felt that it would be best to retain the name [and brand]. I think there is a brand here. There have been millions of dollars invested in the RailHawks brand by the Wellman’s [former owners], by the fans and we felt that was worth preserving.”
Through legal logistics and some financial support from Traffic Sports USA, the team was given new life. The future of the RailHawks was secure. The team would play in the NASL for the 2011 season. 

During the 2010 season the Hawks were Conference Champions and second in the league overall, losing in the championship to the Puerto Rico Islanders. In the offseason several members of the team made the ascension to MLS including offensive talents Daniel Paladini and Tommy Heinemann.  Between the personnel loses and the turmoil of the league, no one knew quite what to expect.  

We’re fortunate the team is being so properly guided towards a promising future. Johnson’s own experience seems to have adequately prepared him for the challenge of maintaining a successful team both on and off the field. Johnson has a distinguished career in the management of sports teams, most notably with the Kansas City Wizards from 1999 to 2006.
 “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great jobs in sports and in particular soccer. I was, many years ago, Director of Marketing for the Carolina Hurricanes [NHL], General Manager of the Richmond Kickers for three years. I was General Manager of the Kansas City Wizards for seven years. All those roles help me where I am now.”
The RailHawks President also has the added benefit of growing up in the area and playing soccer with the local clubs. It is that experience coupled with the staff of the front office that is guiding the club to success on and off the field.
Professional soccer has been on and off again in the triangle area. In the mid nineties there were the Raleigh Flyers and Capital Express playing in the old ‘A’ League. Those teams dissolved for several reasons and until 2006 when the Carolina RailHawks were established there was no professional soccer in the area. Now with the team on the tear fans are wondering what could be next.
Pablo Compos, former RSL

Much of the team’s success on-field has involved ex-MLS players like Brad Knighton, Nick Zimmerman and Pablo Compos are giving the team the extra boost they perhaps needed to reach the championship that eluded them in 2010. Each are young and boast MLS experience. Consider also that players like Brian Farber played with MLS Reserve teams. Add to that the brilliant play of goal scorer Etienne Barbara of Malta and it’s no wonder the team is so impressive.

The question was posed whether it was an intentional decision by Carolina to specifically target ex-MLSers. The response was not all that surprising. “Yes and no. I think what we are actively targeting are players who are motivated. Motivated to get better and to win games,” said Johnson. “Sometimes that’s an MLS player, sometimes that’s a player from Europe or South America. That’s the formula. Highly motivated players that want to develop and win games.”
In particular with such success on field many are wondering whether there is any interest by MLS teams in any of the Carolina players. “Yes, absolutely we have. Pretty frequently,” Johnson stated bluntly. He continued, “When you win a lot of games and you have talented players and coaches, we’ve got a lot of interest.”
As to which in particular it was difficult to ascertain, “There haven’t been too many players we haven’t had some kind of conversation about. There are players here that can help teams. Some of those conversations are more serious than others and it’s an ongoing dialogue.”
A player who has frequently been the topic of those conversations is Carolina forward who has dominated the league in offensive stats, Etienne Barbara. As to whether teams have inquired about him specifically, the RailHawks president confirmed interest.  “The soccer world is a small one and there is constant dialogue about good players. We’re fortunate to have a lot of good players and Etienne is one at the top of the list for a lot of people.”
Sometimes undersold is the value of Martin Rennie. The Carolina coach has a proven record as a winner. The team’s success can largely be attributed to him and Johnson was quick to give credit; “He’s provided the continuity to the organization in a lot of ways. We’ve had a lot of change over in the years the RailHawks have existed and that’s one of the main things we need to work on is to have stability.”
Further emphasizing the value of those in the RailHawks both on the roster and in the front office, “Once you get good people you’ve got to keep good people. Martin has done a fantastic job. The level of talent and the level of performance of the team under him has gotten better every year.”
The Possibility of Moving to MLS
With the success of the team on the field and success at the gate rising, many have wondered about the possibility of the entire franchise moving to MLS in the vein of Seattle or Montreal. Consider that they took their teams’ successes as a second division side and used that to parlay a role in Major League Soccer
“I certainly wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I hadn’t thought about it. I don’t think any of us; fans, business people, players or owners that care about the RailHawks should ever put limits on what this could be.”  
WakeMed frequently houses both the Men's and Women's National Team
Carolina currently plays at WakeMed Soccer Park, which seats a standard 7,500 and can be expanded to roughly 10,000. In terms of MLS stadiums, it certainly isn’t top amongst available seating. However, I pointed out to Mr. Johnson that the San Jose Earthquakes have been residing at Buck Shaw Stadium, which seats the same, for the over half a decade. The possibility seems to be there.
“There need to be teams in the southeast and I think this market has as many pluses as any other market in the southeast. There is no reason for us to put limits on what this sport is and could mean to North Carolina.”
He continued, “We have a lot of talented people in the front office. I would put the nucleus of our staff up against the nucleus of a lot of Major League Soccer organizations and go toe to toe with them.”
It was then that I asked point blank about whether MLS has approached either the RailHawks or Carolina as a place with potential. The response was cryptic but certainly gives hope towards the future, even a distant one:  Johnson continued by pointing out the obvious benefits of a sports area such as the Triangle. “The Triangle is a major league sports area. What I mean by that is there is nothing minor league about the organizations, college teams here. The Carolina Hurricanes are the only, by definition, major league here but our college facilities are major league, the level of play brings home national championships regularly.”
Fans continue to have reason to celebrate
There may not have been a more accurate statement in the entire interview. The Triangle is a hot bed of potential. Between the collegiate talent in the ACC for both soccer and basketball, the attendance and interest of the game when US Soccer has played in the area and there is obvious evidence of potential.
In the end, Curt Johnson’s message to fans, owners, sponsors and players was simple: No Limits.
If the message is indeed no limits, then fans of soccer in Carolina and around the country can look to the future and be excited.
“I don’t think we should limit ourselves as to what the potential of the sport is.”
“There are people here in this community that have done research into it. Plans and facility-wise yes. At the end of the day it comes down to an owner that is committed, a facility and a fanbase. There is no reason this community cant have something like that.”


  1. All Photos in this article were courtesy of Rob Kinnan Photography

  2. I truly don't see the area having a MLS team without proper ownership. I fear how long the RailHawks will be able to keep Martin Rennie with his ongoing success.

  3. Very nice article, however, RailHawks to MLS?

    San Jose metro area as mentioned in the article is 4,335,391. 11th largest in the US.

    Cary metro area 1,130,490. 48th largest.

    Not going to happen.

  4. From Wikipedia:

    "The eight-county region, officially named the Raleigh-Durham-Cary CSA, comprises the Raleigh-Cary and Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan areas and the Dunn Micropolitan Statistical Area. A 2009 Census Estimate put the population at 1,742,816. The Raleigh-Durham television market includes a broader 23-county area which includes Fayetteville, and has a population of 2,726,000 persons."

  5. Well, Kansas City's metro is at 2.2 million, Columbus is at 1.8 million, and Salt Lake is at 1.1 million. Raleigh is at 1.7 million.

    Very possible based on population. Just sayin'