RailHawks make cross-country trek - News & Observer


Carolina plays at Vancouver

BY RACHEL ULLRICH

A 4 a.m. wakeup call, more than 3,000 miles of travel and a three-hour time change probably aren't the ideal circumstances for the day before a soccer match.

But that's what the Carolina RailHawks (13-5-3) had to look forward to before tonight's game against the host Vancouver Whitecaps (7-9-4) at 10 o'clock Eastern time.

"You're away from home, you're in a hotel, you're eating airport food, you really can't get the same food and the same rest as you would if you were at home," midfielder Josh Gardner said. "It definitely makes it hard."

In a United Soccer Leagues First Division that boasts two squads in Canada, one in Puerto Rico and the rest stretching to the corners of each coast, every team faces its fair share of plane trips.

This year, many of the RailHawks' trips are clustered near the season's close. In the next month, the team will visit Vancouver, Rochester, N.Y., Montreal and Puerto Rico, logging more than 10,000 miles in the process.

So coach Martin Rennie tells his players to put that frequent flier mileage to good use, filling the time by visualizing situations in the game and mentally preparing.

"For me as a center back, I go through different defensive situations and decisions I'm going to make -- the feel of the ball in the air, me going up for a header," captain Mark Schulte said.

"And also just every detail of the game you can do. From the smell of the grass, to the roar of the crowd, to the drunk people behind your bench telling you you're garbage."

So far, the RailHawks have coped well. With a 5-3-1 away record, Carolina has the second-most road wins in the USL.
That's partly because they've been able to take advantage of the more relaxed play of home teams.

"I think sometimes you don't have to dictate the game, you can let the game come to you a little bit," Rennie said. "And that can suit us a little bit, too, 'cause we've got good players who can win the ball and then attack quickly from that position."

The RailHawks will have to get back into the home-team mentality quickly. After touching down in Raleigh late Sunday night, they must face the Whitecaps again Tuesday at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Luckily for the RailHawks, the Whitecaps will be making the same trip. And Carolina's deep bench once again should be a key to its chances.

"Some guys that will probably start on Tuesday won't even make the trip, so that will give them freshness," Rennie said. "[Vancouver] won't have that."

The RailHawks know well that often teams go into away matches looking for a draw, expecting not to be able to capitalize fully on the harsh travel circumstances or unfamiliar setting.

"A lot of times, it's almost more defensive, and you're just trying to get a point," Gardner said. "But three points is great. With this team, we're always expecting to win, so that's what we go for."

Carolina won its last away game, at Rochester, off a Kupono Low goal in the 90th minute. That made all the difference during the long flight back the next day, Schulte said.

"The day is made a lot longer or a lot shorter depending on how we play," he said. "If we do well, everybody's having a good time. None of that matters."