How It All Began:
On July 19, 2006, the Carolina RailHawks were introduced as the state’s newest professional sports team at halftime of the USL First Division All-Star Game held at SAS Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. The name “RailHawks” was selected as part of a name-the-team contest, which was won by Cary resident Jarrett Campbell. A fictitious bird of prey, the RailHawk combines the speed and power of a locomotive with the aggressive and fierce nature of a hawk.
The team debuted at SAS Soccer Park, now WakeMed Soccer Park, in 2007. This soccer-specific stadium was the previous home of the Carolina Courage, a women’s professional team that was part of the WUSA until the league folded in 2003.
Born in a state deep-rooted in soccer tradition, the club has become a stronghold of the NASL while capturing national and international attention in its ten years of existence. From defeating the LA Galaxy three times in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, to hosting the first-ever English Premier League team to visit the Triangle in 2016, North Carolina FC has established itself as a rising star in soccer that maintains focus on youth development and fan engagement.
2007: The Inaugural Season
The Carolina RailHawks launched their inaugural season on April 21, 2007 in front of 6,327 fans at SAS Soccer Park. The team drew 1-1 with the Minnesota Thunder in their first official regular season match. Defender Kupono Low scored the first goal in franchise history when he blasted a 24-yard left-footed shot past Thunder keeper Joe Warren.
The club earned its first win on May 8, 2007 in an exhibition match against Chivas USA, where they defeated the MLS side 2-0. Head Coach Scott Schweitzer led the team to an eighth place finish in the USL First Division that year.
Nigerian striker Connally Edozien ended the season as the team’s leading scorer with eight goals and goalkeeper Chris McClellan set a club record with 12 shutouts in a single season, a record that is still in place today.
With a league record of 8W-12L-8D, the RailHawks made history in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup as they surged past MLS side Chicago Fire and regional rival Richmond Kickers to make it to the semi-final match. Despite falling 2-1 in added time against the New England Revolution, the RailHawks’ 2007 Open Cup run would be their most successful to date.
The RailHawks continued to broaden their schedule when they welcomed Liga MX’s Cruz Azul to Cary in an international exhibition match on July 25. Despite losing 2-0, the team played in front of a record crowd of 6,505 at SAS Soccer Park.
In their inaugural season, the RailHawks won the Southern Derby Cup- a fan-based soccer cup between USL teams based in the South-Atlantic region of the country (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama). Carolina went 3W-OL-1D in the Southern Derby, securing the first championship in club history.
2008: Establishing Excellence
The second regular season was similar to the first, as the team finished the USL season once again in eighth place, winning one more game than the previous year. The RailHawks started out strong with a seven game unbeaten streak before falling 1-0 to the Atlantic Silverbacks on May 10, 2008.
The highlight of the year came in July when the club hosted Liga MX side Club de Fútbol Monterrey and held the Mexican team to 0-0 at the end of 90 minutes. The RailHawks fell 1-4 in penalty kicks, but the competitive game showed the team’s ability play at a high level.
In their second season, the RailHawks proved dominance as they became back-to-back champions, winning the Southern Derby Cup yet again.
Chris McClellan remained in goal for Carolina, posting six shutouts in his second season with the club. After Connally Edozien transferred to Miami FC during the 2008 season, it was Hamed Diallo who stepped in as the club’s leading scorer. The Ivorian striker netted seven goals in 26 appearances.
2009: The Rennie Era
2009 saw a coaching staff change as Martin Rennie replaced Scott Schweitzer as head coach in the club’s third USL season. On July 17, the RailHawks signed then free agent Greg Shields to the roster, who would go on to become an assistant coach for the team.
Several big names came to Cary in 2009, including the Panama national team and Honduran Club Deportivo Olimpia.
Yet again, the RailHawks performed in the Southern Derby for the third year in a row, co-championing with the Charleston Battery.
The club showed its potential for greatness, finishing the regular season in second place with a 16W-7D-7L. They scored 43 goals, while conceding only 19. Sallieu Bundu and Gregory Richardson led the team in goals, with six each.
A new face was featured in goal as Caleb Patterson-Sewell took over, earning 10 clean sheets throughout the year.
The RailHawks made it to the second round of both the US Open Cup and the USL post-season, losing a close 1-0 game on September 24 to the Vancouver Whitecaps in chase of a Championship.
In 2009, the RailHawks also announced their intent to leave the USL in favor of being a co-founder of the North American Soccer League in 2010 along with eight other teams.
2010: First Place Position
The USL was reluctant to have teams exit the league for the NASL; therefore, the US Soccer Federation ordered the two leagues to work together. The solution saw the RailHawks play in a temporary league in 2010, the USSF Division II Professional League, which combined the NASL and the USL-1.
The RailHawks finished in first place on the NASL side, earning them a spot in post-season contention with a 13W-8D-9L record with the help of a team-leading eight goals from Etienne Barbara.
Barbara played in front of Eric Reed in net, who held opponents scoreless six times throughout the season.
Midfielder Tiyi Shipalane joined the club in 2010, while a month-long loan saw Tommy Heinemann play for Carolina as well. A marquee signing from the club also came in the form of David Hayes, who began his professional career with D.C. United of MLS.
International visitors once again came to WakeMed Soccer Park, this year with appearances from Mexico’s U-21 team and Pumas Morelos, a Mexican team that played in the Segunda División.
Carolina made a great run in the league playoffs, reaching the final, where they fell to the Puerto Rico Islanders. The league’s playoffs format involved a two-game aggregate goal series.
The RailHawks lost the first game in Puerto Rico, 2-0, and tied the second game at WakeMed Soccer Park with a 1-1 draw. Heinemann provided Carolina’s goal in the 10th minute; however, it was not enough to overcome the Islander’s two-goal lead.
2011: Success Strikes Again
Only building on 2010’s success, the RailHawks won the NASL regular season in the league’s inaugural year with a 17W-3D-8L record.
Etienne Barbara again led the team in goals, scoring 20 over the course of the season. Those goals won him both the NASL Golden Ball and NASL Golden Boot, naming him the league’s MVP and top-scorer. The Malta national also added eight assists throughout the year.
Barbara wasn’t the only player with a great showing, as the RailHawks featured four players on the NASL’s Best XI, including Barbara, Matt Watson, Kupono Low and Brad Knighton.
The club scored 50 goals throughout the year, while only conceding 26.
New faces this season included Pablo Campos, from Real Salt Lake of MLS, Allan Russell, from Kilmarnock in Scotland, and Akira Fitzgerald after his graduation from Wake Forest University.
Despite the regular season’s dominancy, in which the RailHawks posted a 13 game unbeaten streak at their peak, the club fell to the NSC Minnesota Stars in the semifinals of the playoffs.
The Stars took the first game of the aggregate goal series with a 1-0 win on Oct. 8 and the RailHawks retaliated with a 4-3 win at WakeMed Soccer Park on Oct. 15. With even scoring, the game went to penalty kicks, with the Stars winning the contest.
The club announced on December 11 that Colin Clarke would be taking over at the helm in 2012 as the next Head Coach with Martin Rennie’s departure.
2012: Colin Clarke’s Creation
As the defending regular season champions, the RailHawks finished the 2012 season in fourth place with a 10W-10D-8L record under the first year of Colin Clarke’s guidance.
The club had an impressive US Open Cup run. Carolina handed PSA Elite of the USASA a brutal 6-0 loss and MLS club Los Angeles Galaxy a 2-1 loss to earn their spot in the fourth round. After an early goal from Los Angeles, Tiyi Shipalane scored a late equalizer in the 75th minute. The South African footballer picked up an assist in the 88th minute when Brian Shriver netted the ball, effectively pulling off the upset.
They advanced to the fourth round to challenge MLS side Chivas USA where they eventually fell in a close 2-1 match.
It was Shriver’s first year with the club after the University of North Carolina alum left for a brief stint with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Nick Zimmerman led the team in scoring in 2012 with an impressive 15 goals, making the NASL Team of the Year, while Ray Burse found success in net with six clean sheets.
The RailHawks signed a pair of former Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Austin da Luz and Zack Schilawski. On April 4, da Luz came from the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United of MLS.
On April 27, Carolina also signed Cary, N.C. local Schilawski, who was coming from the New England Revolution of MLS. Schilawski was a RailHawks product, having also previously played with the RailHawks U23’s.
The RailHawks made it to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row where they eliminated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on Sept. 29 in the Quarterfinals with a 3-1 win.
Carolina was then eliminated in the semifinals of the playoffs by one goal in the aggregate series, as the Tampa Bay Rowdies outscored the RailHawks, overall, with a 2-1 Rowdies win on Oct. 6 at WakeMed Soccer Park and a 3-3 draw in Florida on Oct. 13.
2013: Akira Fitzgerald Takes Hold
The RailHawks finished in second place in both the Spring and Fall Seasons with a 12W-12D-7L record, however, NASL format did not include the playoffs this year.
No stranger to a deep Open Cup run, the RailHawks made another appearance in the Quarterfinals. Carolina upset two MLS teams on the way, both LA Galaxy and Chivas USA.
In the May 29 win over Los Angeles, the RailHawks blanked the Galaxy at WakeMed Soccer Park in front of 8,121 fans, with a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Tiyi Shipalane and Austin da Luz.
The RailHawks then knocked off Chivas USA at WakeMed Soccer Park on June 12 with a 3-1 win, as Shipalane tallied another Open Cup goal, and Brian Ackley and César Elizondo added on.
Carolina’s elimination came on June 26 with an away loss to Real Salt Lake of MLS, the eventual runner-up of the competition.
Akira Fitzgerald took his position as the club’s starting goalkeeper, leading the team in shutouts.
Brian Shriver led the league with 15 goals, earning himself a spot on the 2013 NASL Team of the Year and winning the NASL Golden Boot for scoring the most goals in the league.
2014: Upset Artists
The NASL introduced The Championship playoff format this year, with the Spring Season and Fall Season winners earning a spot, as well as the following two clubs with the best combined record. With a 11W-5D-11L record, the RailHawks finished the year in 5th place in the combined standings.
Though Carolina did not participate in the playoffs, the club made it to the Quarterfinals of the Open Cup again, eliminating the Charlotte Eagles, and both the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA for a third and second time respectively.
The club also won its two exhibition matches, serving both the United States U-20 team and Mexican team Puebla F.C. 2-1 losses at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Zack Schilawski, who joined the club in 2012, led the team with 11 goals and Akira Fitzgerald remained staunch in net, leading the team in shutouts.
Midfielder Nazmi Albadawi joined the RailHawks this season after graduating from North Carolina State University. He netted his first goal in the club’s 2-0 win over the Charlotte Eagles in the second round of the Open Cup. Albadawi was named NASL Player of the Week for his goal and assist in the RailHawks’ 3-1 win over the San Antonio Scorpions.
Staunch defender Connor Tobin also joined the team this year from Minnesota United FC. The RailHawks bolstered their offesne by signing the Spanish Nacho Novo.
2015: The End of an Era
The RailHawks finished the Spring Season in 3rd place, putting themselves in good position for the Fall Season; however, a 7th place Fall Season finish landed the club a 6th place overall spot in the standings. Carolina played to a 9W-8D-13L record.
Nacho Novo led the team in offensive production with 11 goals and Akira Fitzgerald once again led the club’s goalkeeping, with four clean sheets.
WakeMed Soccer Park was visited by a new club, as Seoul E-Land FC visited from South Korea for an exhibition match. The RailHawks picked up an exciting win via a 5-4 advantage in penalties.
The RailHawks did not perform as per usual in the Open Cup, as they suffered a 1-0 loss to the Charlotte Independence in the Third Round.
The club saw a change in ownership this year as local owner Steve Malik took over the team from Traffic Sports.
2016: New Faces
Current owner Steve Malik seized the opportunity to transform the club and pursue a vision for the future of soccer in the state of North Carolina.
During a press conference on October 30, 2015, the ambitious local owner said, “Our goal is to take the RailHawks to the highest level through additional investment in marketing, players and staffing. We are excited to lead our community in working together to give the Triangle a world-class soccer team.”
Malik stuck to his word and completely revamped the RailHawks game-day experience with the addition of the Far Post Beer Garden, the Fan Bus, the Duck Donuts Family Fun Zone and Matchday Swoopstakes.
New faces in the front office were matched with the new faces on the field. The RailHawks had a big year with the addition of forwards Omar Bravo and Matt Fondy.
Bravo, the biggest signing in club history, provided senior leadership and immense experience to the team, as he left C.D. Guadalajara as the team’s all-time leading scorer. In 14 games played with the RailHawks, he scored four goals and added one assist.
Fondy supplemented Bravo’s offensive spark with seven goals and two assists of his own, making him the leading-scorer of the season.
In addition, captain Nazmi Albadawi set a modern NASL single-season record with his 10 assists. The midfielder was nominated for the NASL Golden Ball, given to the league’s most valuable player.
Though the RailHawks missed the playoffs again, with a 7W-5D-10L record, they again made an impressive Open Cup run, reaching the fourth round where they lost a tight 1-0 game to the New England Revolution of MLS.
In the third round, the RailHawks eliminated the Charlotte Independence with a 5-0 win that saw Carolina score five extra-time goals in the thrilling match. The score set a US Open Cup record for the most goals scored by a single team in extra time.
West Ham United became the first Premier League team to visit the Triangle region of North Carolina when they came to WakeMed Soccer Park on July 12.
In the exciting 2-2 draw, the RailHawks showed their abilities to keep up with the top-team with an own-goal on West Ham’s end and a goal from Marvin Ceballos in the 67th minute, his first with the RailHawks. The match took place in front of a record 10,125 fans.