By MIKE McCALL
Wind the clock back a little more than a month to June 25, and life was pretty good for the Carolina RailHawks.
With two games left in their North American Soccer League Spring Season, they were one win away from winning a title and the right to host the Soccer Bowl in November. Beyond league play, they had just knocked off consecutive MLS teams to become the first NASL squad in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup.
Then, it all came undone.
First, a 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake spoiled their cup run. Three days later, a 1-1 home draw against Atlanta failed to close the door, and when they finished the schedule with a 2-0 loss at San Antonio — only their second loss of the year — it handed the spring championship to the Silverbacks by a single point.
Now with the disappointment of the spring season in the rear view mirror, the RailHawks will look to earn a berth in the Soccer Bowl.
Here’s a closer look at the Carolina Railhawks heading into the 2012 NASL Fall Season:
2013 SPRING SEASON FINISH: 5-5-2, 20 points, (second place in the NASL standings)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: MF Brian Arguez.
KEY LOSSES: MF Floyd Franks
PLAYERS TO WATCH: MF Enzo Martinez, F Brian Shriver, MF Austin Da Luz, D Julius James.
Heading into the start of their NASL Fall Season on Saturday against FC Edmonton, it’s fair to say those recent failures are fresh in the RailHawks’ minds.
“We were disappointed in how we finished. We had some chances to win it, and it didn’t happen,” Carolina coach Colin Clarke said. “It’s a big motivation. For me, I thought we were the best team in the first half of the season, but Atlanta won it, so we do have motivation to finish first this fall and see them again in November.”
Clarke’s hope is to reach the top rung by improving in a number of areas.
At first glance, there wasn’t a ton wrong with the RailHawks.
Over 12 games in the spring, they were second in the league for goals (20) and shots, then tied for fourth in goals allowed (16). They also went undefeated at home (5-0-1) and had just two losses on the road (0-2-4).
But Clarke is quick to point out the opportunities. Four away draws left lots of points on the table, and Carolina scored first in just two matches.
Further, the attack was heavily dependent on forward Brian Shriver, who led the team with eight goals. The next three most productive offensive players — all midfielders — found the net a combined seven times.
“We relied a lot on Brian Shriver to score goals,” Clarke said. “But we had a lot of firepower that was not on the field.”
Indeed, forwards and proven scorers Nick Zimmerman and Nick Addlery didn’t log a single minute due to knee injuries. Clarke said Addlery is back in training and should be healthy soon, while he hopes to have Zimmerman at some point this fall.
The mid-year break also brought a notable departure, as Carolina shipped captain Floyd Franks to Minnesota United FC in exchange for 24-year-old midfielder Bryan Arguez, the No. 11 pick in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft.
But despite spells with D.C. United, in Germany and with the U.S. U-17, U-20 and U-23 squads, Arguez has yet to find his form. He played in just six games with MUFC in the spring, and Clarke is hoping to see him hit full stride soon.
“Brian was a player I have tracked for a while,” Clarke said, acknowledging that it took a tempting offer to ship off the team captain. “I think he’s a player that has yet to fulfill his full potential. He’s still a young kid, and we’re looking forward to helping him reach that potential.”
Count Enzo Martinez in the same boat.
The 23-year-old will also compete for playing time in the midfield. After a remarkable career at UNC (22 goals, 20 assists in 72 games), he was the No. 17 pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft and came to Carolina on loan from Real Salt Lake after failing to make an impact early on.
Martinez didn’t log many minutes in the spring with the RailHawks (74 in three games), but he did notch a game-tying goal in the 84th minute of his professional debut against Minnesota United, ripping a long-distance strike to earn a 2-2 result.
“We feel that he can be a big help to us here,” Clarke said. “He’s a great player who needs time on the field and experience. The best way to develop is to get on the field and play.”
And whether it’s bringing along young talent like Martinez and Arguez, or trying to get the most out of three established forwards, there’s that single, binding motivation that will drive the RailHawks forward.
Don’t let it happen again.
“Overall, we’re in a good spot,” Clarke said. “The boys are very focused right now. They worked hard during the break, and they came back champing at the bit. They were disappointed and it hurt them that they didn’t win the spring season, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Carolina’s fall title quest begins Saturday at 7 p.m. when FC Edmonton comes to town. The club’s second game features a trip to Atlanta, home of the spring champion Silverbacks.