In the hinterlands of Cary, North Carolina — itself largely a vast hinterland between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, a place once featured in National Geographic as the ultimate suburb — sits the Wake Med Soccer Complex. There’s a slight chance you may have seen it at some point on TV — the ACC soccer tournament is played here, along with an exhibition game by the U.S. Women’s team — and an even slighter chance you have been there yourself. But it was precisely the place to be last night. It is the home stadium to the NASL Carolina Railhawks, who last night hosted the LA Galaxy in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup — our little-known equivalent to the FA Cup or the French Cup. Like these other tournaments, the competition is important because of the way it democratizes professional soccer: in the face of the capital-driven franchise model of the MLS, it offers lower-division teams a sliver of a chance to make a mark. Which is what, throughout the country last night, they did — defeating 7 out of 14 MLS teams in various games played largely in small stadia like Wake-Med.
We got there shortly before kick-off, and settled in on the spanking new north end of the pitch — literally spanking new, in that it has been rushed to be opened to accommodate the sudden surge of fans who wanted to come see Railhawks vs. Galaxy. It was a record-setting night at the stadium: almost 8,000 spectators, the largest crowd ever. Towering above the stadium, meanwhile, is an unfinished section — which to my mind will simply have to be dubbed “the Hawk’s nest” once it opens — that will provide a wonderfully precipitous view of the pitch when it’s opened later this year. The Railhawks are a good team — they won the NASL Championship in 2011, and have a roster of exciting players largely from the U.S. but also from Togo and South Africa. They’ve got a devoted group of “ultras,” the Triangle Soccer Fanatics, who created a great atmosphere last night — complete with smoke-bombs, vuvuzelas, streamers, clever chants, and behavior that got them a (very light) chiding from the sympathetic security guards.
North Carolina can honestly claim it’s place among the heartlands of U.S. soccer, thanks largely to the deep history of UNC’s women’s soccer program, but also to the strength of UNC and Duke’s men’s teams and a rich and lively amateur soccer scene throughout the year. But it’s not that often we get bigger professional or international games played around here. As of last year, the Gold Cup starting having some games in Charlotte — drawing large crowds of fans of the Mexican and Salvadorean teams, but flying almost entirely under the radar of local sports coverage, as the Gold Cup often tends to. (The evening also provided an opportunity for the defection of Cuban players, in the wake of a 5-0 clobbering by Mexico that night). But there’s a lingering sentiment that, given the local passion for the sport, we might deserve a bit more.
So it was that when the Railhawks made it into the 3rd round of the U.S. Open Cup to face the LA Galaxy, a buzz spread through the Triangle soccer community. A tiny sequel to what Grant Wahl has termed “The Beckham Experiment” played itself out here, as people rushed to buy tickets for the game hoping to see a few stars on our modest local pitch. As it turned out, there would be no Beckham, or Donovan, or Keane — all of them either unfit or called up for international friendly matches — but rather a team of Galaxy reserves. But Beckham did his part, in the end, getting fans there and mobilized for what turned out to be an exciting match that peaked in the second half with two dazzling, goal-producing runs by the talented Ty Shipalane. David Fellerath provides a nice annotation and video of the match here. They earned a place against Chivas USA (one of the MLS teams to survive challenges last night) next week, again at Wake-Med Stadium. And so — even though we won against an already sagging Galaxy team, and it’s reserve team at that — there was plenty of joy in those stands last night.
If you wanted to watch from afar, you had to content yourself with streaming video — what Maxi Rodriguez jokingly described as “the rarely used Sports Shaky Cam.” But last night left me feeling, once again, that we might actually content ourselves at the margins of U.S. sports culture. Though the Open Cup barely registers as a media event here, last night was a terrific evening of soccer and fandom, an intimate occasion in which the crowd and Railhawks players could build off one another, and generally enjoy the sight of the ball sailing up into the open night sky, with both very little and very much at stake.