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.