HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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07 June 2007

Railhawks article in the Independent Weekly

Top left: Kupono Low’s winning goal goes past Charleston goalkeeper in the RailHawks’ victory on May 19. Bottom left: Scott Schweitzer, head coach of the Carolina RailHawks, at practice. Above: RailHawks players celebrate the Low’s winning goal against Charleston at SAS Soccer Park in Cary.

Poised to fly

The Carolina RailHawks bring professional soccer back to the Triangle. Will they remake the culture of the suburbs in the process?

by chris Gaffney photos by Rex Miller

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s the team bus pulls into RE/MAX Greater Atlanta Stadium at Silverbacks Park, the stadium name is not the only source of confusion. The facility is still under construction, so there are no locker rooms, only trailers. The grass isn’t grass, it’s turf. The press box has no functional electrical outlets. It isn’t even a box, just plywood on scaffolding. It’s Saturday night in early May, and the RailHawks left Cary at 7 a.m. this morning, having battled the Puerto Rico Islanders to a 0-0 draw the night before. Head coach Scott Schweitzer knows his team and its stingy defense will put up a good fight against the Atlanta Silverbacks, but will they have the legs for 90 minutes? An early goal could be the difference.

With the arrival of the Carolina RailHawks, the latest expansion franchise in the USL-1 league, the Triangle now has a team that is professional soccer’s equivalent of the AAA Durham Bulls baseball club. The RailHawks play at Cary’s 7,000 capacity SAS Soccer Park, a field that attracts nationwide attention because it is considered one of the top soccer venues in the country (an opinion confirmed by strolling across the billiard-table-smooth grass).

The team is an odd mixture of local success stories, journeyman professionals and rising young talent. Earning monthly salaries ranging from $1,500 to $4,500 per month, players from England, Ireland, Ghana, Trinidad, Brazil and Argentina combine with those from 14 states to form one of the deepest pools of talent in the league. Among them are Nigerian-born Connally Edozien, a powerful midfielder with delightful moves and vision; David Stokes, a graceful, tough defender who spent three years with D.C. United of the MLS; and Santiago Fusilier, a knavish young midfielder who came to the team via N.C. State University and Buenos Aires.

The team is overseen by the 35-year-old Schweitzer, an intense man with the bearing of a drill sergeant—and indeed, his specialty as a player and a coach has been defense. Schweitzer, who played for N.C. State in the early ’90s, spent most of his 15-year career with the Rochester Raging Rhinos and was twice named USL-1 Defender of the Year. Now, he looks focused and concerned as his team faces its first road trip, less than 24 hours after last night’s frustrating draw. “Having squandered six points at home [their first three home games were draws, worth one point; wins are worth three], we are playing to win,” Schweitzer says. “We’re going to play our style of soccer. If we do the right things for long enough, we will eventually start winning.”

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team is the fledging brainchild of Chris Economides, a member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame and longtime owner of professional soccer teams. Originally from Rochester, N.Y., Economides co-founded the USL-1 Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1996 and developed it into one of the top 10 small market sport franchises in the country. MLS considered elevating his Rochester club to major-league status, but Economides decided to look for a new project that he could call his own. After scouting viable markets with strong youth leagues, soccer traditions and supportive city governments, Economides settled on Cary, which had partnered with Wake County to build the $14.5 million State Capital Soccer Park in 2002 and was home to the now-defunct professional women’s team Carolina Courage.

Indeed, it’s easy to see why Economides saw the Triangle as a golden opportunity. With registered players numbering around 20,000 and recreational players pushing 50,000, it is a rare Triangle resident who does not know someone who plays, watches or drives someone to play soccer. In fact, seven members of the current squad—including University of North Carolina alums Chris Carrieri and Caleb Norkus, and N.C. State’s Eric Kaufman, Santiago Fusilier, ex-national team member Dario Brose plus Schweitzer—played at local universities. More local talent is in the pipeline playing with the RailHawks’ under-23 squad (the Cary RailHawks) in the USL’s Professional Development League (PDL). The Triangle is one of the United States’ soccer hotbeds and was ripe for a professional soccer team.

Economides, who formed the RailHawks’ parent company Triangle Professional Soccer in October, 2005 said, “We’ve formed a true partnership with the mayor’s office and have had total cooperation from them. They are fair and decent people who have really helped to get this off the ground.” The launching of a team that has to underwrite travel between places as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia and San Juan, Puerto Rico is no small endeavor, and Economides has courted local investors to anchor the project in the community. “There weren’t too many stumbling blocks with the city or the league,” Economides said. “We’ve hit a couple here and there, but our partners are so committed that we’ve been able to deal with them.”

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ack in Atlanta, the game is delicately balanced. The ’Hawks conceded an 18th-minute penalty kick and need to press forward in the second half in search of the equalizer. They were visibly tired at the end of the first half. Now, if they push too much they will leave themselves exposed, too little and there’s no chance of scoring, too late and they won’t have the energy. The Silverbacks’ fans barely have time to get their drums going when a rare mistake in the back line sends two Atlanta forwards scurrying toward Chris McClellan’s goal. Two goals to nil, and a mountain to climb.

Meanwhile, life in the major-league city of Atlanta is feeling a little less than grand. The power in the press box keeps going out, complicating the live broadcast I am doing with Dean Linke for WSHA 88.9. The crowd of 700 is loud for its size, with a dedicated corner of fans (one in a gorilla suit) providing a bit of atmosphere. While Atlanta has been in the USL-1 since 1999, the Silverbacks aren’t a well-known entity in the city, averaging 2,300 fans per game in 2006—well below the league average. When completed, the stadium will be a great place for soccer, but for now, its unfinished state adds to the visiting RailHawks’ discomfort.

The name RailHawks is a symbolic one, as there is no such bird. “RailHawks” combines North Carolina’s railroad history with our most common raptor, the red-tailed hawk. The name is surprisingly apropos: It is not infrequently that a train passes during a game, whistle blowing; while red-tailed hawks have not yet set up camp under the stadium lights, they continually threaten to do so.

Attending games at SAS Soccer Park is akin to stepping into the future while watching high-level soccer in the present. For players preparing to take the field at a RailHawks’ game, the future may look frightening as they have to run a child-gauntlet to get on the field. Before kickoff, Brad Myers, the RailHawks’ vice president of marketing and public relations, forms two lines hundreds of kids long to greet the players as they run out of the players’ tunnel toward midfield. At first, the kids cheered wildly for both teams, but they have since learned that casual slaps of the hand are more appropriate for the visitors. The RailHawks’ family-friendly atmosphere is augmented by their mascot Swoops, an admittedly clever name for a hawk, and the ever-popular gambit of throwing free things into the crowd.

The crowd is predominantly gringo American, which is to say white and suburban, drawn from the middle and upper-middle classes. However, commensurate with demographic shifts, there is a growing Latino fan base, which was underscored by the majority Mexican-American crowd of 5,025 that turned out in a driving rain to see the RailHawks beat Chivas USA of the MLS on May 8. As with crowds at car-racing, professional baseball and hockey, African Americans are under-represented, something that has as much to do with the demographic profile of soccer in the United States as it does about patterns of residential settlement, socio-economic inequality and the history of sports in the Triangle.

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n Atlanta, the game has ended and the RailHawks have lost 2-0. The players are forced to shower in a trailer. It’s not pleasant right now—not only are we a long way from the glamour of international football, the team is also a long way from finding its attacking form, scoring just one goal in four games. Furthermore, the game was full of mutual antagonisms and scuffles, the players and coaching staff are exhausted, annoyed at themselves for losing to a team they know they can beat. The goals aren’t falling and they have to play again in two days. Right now, being a professional soccer player sort of sucks: It’s 10:30 p.m., there is no hot water and the six-hour bus ride back to Cary starts in 30 minutes.

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hile the short-term future of the RailHawks depends on bringing in 3,000-4,000 fans a game (a benchmark they have met so far), what happens at SAS Soccer Park is also about the future of soccer and urban communities in the United States. The trend for major American sports such as baseball and American football is to build or renovate stadiums in urban centers. Soccer is just the opposite, reflecting the continuance of an unfortunate (and ecologically disastrous) cycle in our urban history, further isolating the game in affluent suburbia.

Still, it is in the realm of professional soccer that we see recent and not so recent immigrants connecting in the same moment. Latinos who grew up with the game find its highest local expression in the RailHawks. Affluent suburbanites who have made soccer a lifestyle choice (replete with gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans) can also see the end goal of all those trips to practices and tournaments—which are ultimately aimed at producing college soccer players who then go on to the pros. For other groups, such as the Triangle Soccer Fanatics (trisoccerfan.com), the RailHawks are an object of passionate support that gives texture and life to the anomie of suburbia.

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few days after the frustrating loss in Atlanta, fans in Cary experienced one of the most exciting moments in the team’s short history when the Los Angeles-based MLS team Chivas USA came to play. The match drew a huge Latino crowd, but despite their presumed ethnic loyalty to the visitors, many seemed to turn against their erstwhile compatriots to cheer on the local boys. Later, Latino fans could be seen queuing up to buy the home team’s shirt after the match. It could be that the Carolina RailHawks will be a melting pot of sorts, allowing us to communicate similar feelings in dissimilar tongues, connecting very different lives in a very common way.

However, the Chivas game had some sour notes. It was interrupted three times by scuffles on the field, disruptions all the more striking because the game was an exhibition “friendly.” After the game, Schweitzer shrugged and said, “That’s just the way the game is played.” More recently, complaints about the RailHawks’ tough, defensive style have begun to crop up on soccer chat rooms like BigSoccer. The team is developing a style and reputation that reflects that of their coach, who Economides describes as “someone you hate to play against, but love to have on your team.”

After the RailHawks defeated Chivas in that exhibition match, their fortunes began to improve: Scoring two goals against an MLS team, and shutting them out in the process, put air under their wings. Since then, the RailHawks have put together an impressive string of results, taking 10 out of a possible 15 points (three wins, one tie, one loss), including a road win over the defending USL-1 champion Vancouver Whitecaps who were undefeated over their past 16 games. The RailHawks are currently in third place in USL-1, surprising everyone but themselves.

The RailHawks begin a five-game, month-long home stand this Friday, June 8, against the Rochester Raging Rhinos. This may be the biggest match of the year for Economides, Schweitzer and the four ex-Rhinos on Carolina’s roster. After a U.S. Open Cup game against Chicago’s RWB Adria (June 12), the RailHawks resume league against Seattle Sounders (June 15) and Charleston Battery (June 23) before meeting the first-place Vancouver Whitecaps for a rematch on July 3.

La Ley 96.9 broadcasts highlights of RailHawks’ games on Sunday afternoons, and WSHA 88.9 carries all games live, with some of the best soccer commentating in the country. For more information and tickets, visit www.carolinarailhawks.com. x

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