29 March 2008

Carolina Railhawks (0) v. Red Bull New York (1)

Railhawks get feathers ruffled, lose to Red Bull New York 1-0

Cary, NC
March 28, 2008
Weather: low 60s, sight breeze, partly cloudy, lovely night for soccer

This is the most diverse place in Cary. The 5,426 fans that came to watch an exhibition match between the Carolina Railhawks of USL-1 and Red Bull New York of the MLS offered keen insight into the general demographic mix of the Triangle. For myriad reasons, soccer is something that white people like. Fortunately, soccer is also something that Latin Americans and African Americans like, making Wake Med Soccer Park one of the few places where the major demographic elements of the Triangle come together for a shared event. While socio-economic, linguistic, and geographic divides are in no way altered by the event, there is a sense of shared appreciation that pervades the soccer experience.

In addition to augmenting a sense of importance and connecting diverse social groups, the rituals surrounding any public event also provide insight into cultural norms. One of the most striking twists to the pre –game rituals was the introduction of the Railhawks players as they emerged from cars. Not just any cars, mind you, Saturns, Saturns of Cary. 1,2,3,4,5,6 different models appeared from behind the stands, each delivering players behind the north goal. As the teams right-faced for the national anthem, the cars were trying to back out of their precarious position. Unable to move quickly enough, the cars paused for the well-belted national hymn, engines idling, facing the flag. More cynical readers might get a whiff of the poetic, others might not think about it at all. I suppose we should be thankful that they weren’t brought in by rail or public transportation.

Another curious ritual was the presentation of the Railhawk Dancers. The curious practice of putting teen and pre-teen girls in skimpy costumes as they move suggestively in front of thousands of people (mostly males) apparently is well within the bounds of suburban normalcy. As a parenting technique, it is a bit off. Could it be that there were girls as young as 6 prancing about for visual consumption? One gentleman sitting to my side commented that he felt as if he were a protagonist in American Beauty and was discomfited by that prospect. When we start suggesting to girls at such a young age that they are valued for their ability to successfully “perform” ritualized expressions of sexuality for consumption by the public gaze, what hope is there?

There was so much to think about before the game started that had forgotten why I was there in the first place. Having Red Bull NY in town was a rare opportunity to see former USA national team captain Claudio Reyna and the rising star Jozy Altidore. It was also a great opportunity to see some of the Railhawks’ new signings and to check out the changes that the front office and head coach Scott Schweitzer have made.

From the beginning the gap in quality between the two teams was evident. New York came out with a 3-5-2 which allowed Reyna freedom to dictate the pace through midfield. Carolina, as ever, play a traditional 4-4-2 with an emphasis on the 4s. The first ten minutes of the match revealed some of the differences between MLS and USL, with NY controlling the tempo and exhibiting greater confidence with and fluidity off the ball. However, those intimate with the foibles of US American soccer will not be surprised to hear that even at the highest professional level our players still have difficulty crossing the ball.

Local fans familiar with the anemic attack of 2007 will not be surprised that the Railhawks marked their vernal nesting grounds by laying a goose egg on the scoreboard. However, there was evidence that things could change through the sprightly, knavish, incisive, dynamic Martin Nuñez. Without knowing a thing about this 21-yr old attacking midfielder, it was obvious at first glance that his football is fútbol, molded on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. There needs to be an immediate competition for a nickname for this guy who plays like a small burrito Ortega.

Despite, and perhaps because of, the lack of collective organization going forward the Carolina defense stood out as quick, solid and experienced. Goalkeeper Chris McClellan was in control of his box, veteran center back David Stokes looked imperious, and captain Frankie San Filippo provided good defensive cover on several occasions. Though NY had the majority of possession, Carolina were only undone by a spectacular volley from 20 yards that flew into the top left corner. This was probably the best goal Dave van den Berg has scored in years.

Tactically, Carolina lost shape badly in transition, went backwards as frequently as they went forwards, and could not find anyone to pair with the creativity and guile of second half sub Fusilier, who comes from the same Rio de la Plata mold as Nuñez. Carolina did not make the most of the few chances gifted them by the Bulls – forward Joel Bailey making a hash of several counterattacking possibilities. In fact, Carolina only mustered one shot on goal all night. Thus, the biggest cheers of the evening were for free t-shirts. An interesting social science experiment would be to see how many t-shirts it would take for the crowd to become indifferent. Would there be as many unbridled expressions of desire if everyone had at least one? What if they changed the t-shirt every time? What if the Railhawk Dancers intimated the throwing of shirts but then left the crowd in the lurch? Would that only increase their lust for Bangladeshi cotton products?

The Carolina Railhawks are playing in the USL-1 for the second year. The Carolina RailHawks Women will play seven home games in the Atlantic Division of the USL W-League. Wake Med Soccer Park is also home to the Cary RailHawks U23’s, who will play in the Southeast Division of the PDL (Professional Development League, equivalent to the 4th division). Stay tuned.


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