A lot of USL teams are stocked with young, up-and-coming players out of NCAA, or the Caribbean, or from an MLS team’s development academy. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, these youngsters tend to be fast and technical, but not-yet-developed in terms of physicality or decisionmaking.
Scratch all of that and reverse it, and you’ve got North Carolina FC. The rebranded Railhawks, a refugee club from the defunct North American Soccer League, are an older and more experienced team. I resisted the urge to call this article ‘North Carolina FC are Palookaville Tomato Can Journeyman Crash Davis FC.’ Because that’s just a silly thing to write.
Formation and Tactics
What other formation would an ‘old school’ team roll out than a 4-4-2? In NCFC’s match last week against Toronto FC II, the midfield four were comfortable swapping positions and letting their wingers float inside, and on occasion had their strikers come back into the midfield while pushing up their mids. Bigger and more physical than young TFC II, North Carolina took advantage by knocking their opponents around a little. They got their first goal on a corner kick, and looked very good on all of their set piece opportunities.
Their team is plenty speedy, but overall their game is strongest in inside-outside passing, as they force openings in the defense by bringing the ball wide to the wings and then reversing it back inside. Central midfielders Kyle Bekker and Steven Miller are do-it-all box-to-box mids, and as such a lot of the offense revolves around them. Isolating and containing the two of them, or exploiting them by getting behind them with a quick counter, would be priorities if I were coaching the Hounds.
Want another silly nickname for North Carolina? How ’bout ‘Cup of Coffee FC’? A lot of these players have had a taste of first division football, only to settle in down in the second tier. Midfielder Kyle Bekker played from 2013 to 2016 in MLS with Toronto FC, FC Dallas, and Montreal Impact. Right mid Austin Da Luz got opportunities with New York Red Bulls and DC United, but at 30 years old, he is pretty much settled in at this level. Aaron Guillen is an excellent left back who couldn’t stick with FC Dallas after playing there in 2016 and 2017, getting 8 games over two seasons at the senior club. Steven Miller was drafted and released in 2012 by Montreal Impact. The most experienced of the journeymen is Michael Harrington, an outside back who has moved inside in his twilight years. The 32-year-old North Carolina native racked up around 250 games in MLS over an 11-year career from 2007 to 2017, including a stop with the Colorado Rapids as their right back in 2015, when they were quite bad. As a centerback he’s steady and his distribution is good, but my strongest memories of ‘MikeyMoMoney’ in those days was the phrase “poorly timed challenge”.
All of my snide remarks are not meant only to cast shade on North Carolina. Veteran teams are clever and consistent, and will find ways to beat you even when they are outclassed. Poor TFCII took their umpteen-gazillionth loss last week against NCFC after taking the lead because they conceded on a set piece, then gave away a questionable PK as North Carolina’s crafty striker Daniel Rios went down under pretty soft contact. The Railhawks added a third goal a little later after TFCII had all but given up. There is a reason all of these guys have stuck around in soccer so long: they are clever and they know how to get wins. They welcome the Riverhounds to Sahlen Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park (ucch, really? That’s the name of their field?) with a 6-8-5 record that leaves them 3 points out of the playoffs, so they’ll be motivated and hungry to get a result.
North Carolina FC are 2-2-1 over their last five matches, and their home record of 4-4-2 is solid if unspectacular.