NASL Season Preview: Carolina RailHawks

Manager Colin Clarke hopes to avoid the sophomore slump at Carolina
by Daniel Casey   |   Friday, March 08, 2013

The Minors - column on North America's lower division soccer leagues (NASL, USL PRO, CSL, NPSL, PCSL & USL PDL)

Carolina Railhawks had a solid finish to the 2012 season: They made the playoffs after a surge that saw them secure 4th place in the league with a 10-10-8 record before being beaten 5-4 on aggregate against future NASL champions Tamp Bay Rowdies.

In his first season at the helm of Carolina, long-time NASL manager Colin Clarke (2007-2011 with Puerto Rico Islanders) did a good job. Especially given that the man he replaced, Martin Rennie, took with him several key players on his way to MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps. This season, Clarke should be looking to get out of the gates early and show the fans of the Triangle Area in North Carolina that more and better can and will be expected and delivered.

When surveying any team in the preseason, it makes sense to begin with player turnover. Carolina hasn’t so much experienced an upheaval as grown to take on the character that Clarke desires. It would be wrong to label certain players ‘quick fixes’ but it appears that a few were just that.

Eternally promising but never fulfilling, centerback Gale Agbossoumonde has gone north to Toronto FC. I truly hope he impresses there and does well because his season in Carolina was a nightmare of injury, poor decisions, bad tackles and sloppiness. Agbossoumonde was a liability to his team more often than not. Also absent is goalkeeper Ray Nurse, who unlike Agbossoumonde, had a very good season between the sticks for the Railhawks. However, it looks like Clarke is going with a young keeper this season, Akira Fitzgerald, who has come up through the Carolina’s youth system. Having penned a multiyear deal at the beginning of this season it looks like he’ll be the Railhawks’ No. 1.

Carolina’s attacking core remains with strong forwards Nick Zimmerman (15 goals, 1 assist), journeymen Zach Schilawski (4 goals, 1 assist), Brian Shiver (5 goals, 3 assists), Jason Garey (3 goals, 3 assists) and promising youngster Brian Ackley (who scored 3 goals in only 348 minutes in 2012).

With this group returning, goals shouldn’t be difficult to find for Carolina. Especially given that Clarke has brought in Nicholas Addlery (9 goals, 1 assist) from the on-hiatus Puerto Rico Islanders. Addlery will easily find his footing with Carolina given that Clarke managed him for several season in Puerto Rico and will look to team with Zimmerman for an even more potent attack. If this core of forwards repeats their scoring in 2013, Carolina will once again be at the top of the league in goals scored. Last year, with 42 goals, they were second only to San Antonio (46). And keep in mind San Antonio has lost the league’s 2012 Golden Boot winner Pablo Campos, who accounted for nearly half of those goals.

Providing service and winning the ball will be returning midfielder Ty Shipalane, Floyd Franks and Austin Da Luz, all steady players who will maintain a consistent presence in the middle of the pitch. Defensively, leftback Kupono Low will lead the squad and hopefully mentor youngster Austen King, who continues to bloom as a defender, and develop a good understanding with former Atlanta Silverbacks Ciaran O’Brien.

But the real question will be, ‘How well will the Carolina youth do?’

It’s wonderful to see the youth system that Carolina has developed continue to produce quality players. Joining the Railhawks first team will be defender Justin Willis and Nick Millington, both talents developed locally. International midfielders Colombian Breiner Ortiz (a signing from this year’s NASL combine) and 19-year-old Costa Rican Jake Beckford will be interesting players to keep an eye on as either could have a breakout campaign.

The preseason schedule for Carolina is going to be entertaining for the supporters. Perhaps the biggest match – after Martin Rennie’s return with his Railhawk peppered Vancouver side – will be the March 20th friendly with Mexican powerhouse Pumas UNAM (7-time champions of Mexico and 3-time CONCACAF Champions). Carolina will flush out its squad with friendlies against local colleges Wake Forest, University of North Carolina, North Carolina State, and nearby USL side Charleston Battery.

Six matches before the beginning of the NASL season give all Railhawks supporters plenty of opportunities to see their team work the rust off and develop the chemistry they’ll need to challenge for the Spring title. It will also provide plenty of time for the character of the team to come out a bit more. I suspect that Carolina will be a team that will either win big or lose big in 2013; I don’t believe there will be much middle ground for this team.

The past two seasons have seen Jekyll and Hyde performances in the beginning of the season. Under Rennie in 2011, Carolina dominated the opening weeks; under Clarke, the opening weeks of the 2012 season were forgettable. No matter the manager, the Railhawks are always a threat and always force themselves into the conversation about who is the best NASL side.

The strength of Carolina will be its attack; this cadre of strikers will tire-out every defense in the league and find the back of the net frequently. To my mind, it would be best for Carolina to embrace the idea that their experienced forwards will make hay from its youthful midfield.

Predicted Starting XI

Akira Fitzgerald; Kupono Low, Austen King, Ciaran O’Brien, Justin Willis; Ty Shipalane, Floyd Franks, Austin Da Luz; Brian Shriver, Nick Zimmerman, Nicholas Addlery

Daniel CASEY

Carthage College Univ. of Notre Dame
Club Domestic:
Chicago Fire & Minnesota Stars
Club Foreign:
Manchester United
Founder/editor of the literary magazine Gently Read Literature, active but barely read poet and literary critic, and an occasional English professor. Never got to play soccer until his mid-30s, so he is routinely schooled by U10 crowd at pick-up games.