As the New England Revolution players and staff ready themselves for Saturday night’s preseason finale against the Carolina RailHawks, they can be forgiven for suffering from a mild case of déjà vu.
One year ago, the Revs closed out their preseason training schedule with a 12-day stay in North Carolina, culminating with a match against the RailHawks on March 14, 2009. Just one week later, they opened the 2009 MLS regular season with a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes almost 3,000 miles across the country.
Tomorrow night (Saturday, March 20), the Revolution will close out the 2010 preseason in eerily similar fashion when they finish up a 12-day trip to North Carolina by visiting the RailHawks at 7 p.m. at WakeMed Soccer Park. And just like they did last year, the Revs will open the regular season one week later in California, this time when they visit the LA Galaxy at The Home Depot Center.
Carolina defender – and current captain – Mark Schulte scored the only goal in last year’s meeting to lead the RailHawks to a 1-0 win, so the Revolution will be hoping for a different outcome on this occasion. The Revs opened the 2009 season with a 1-0 win in San Jose one week later, however, so if they have the option to trade a preseason loss for a regular-season win, they might just oblige.
While the entire eight-week preseason is essential as players and coaches prepare for the rigors of an eight-month schedule, it can be argued that the final preseason game is the most critical. Teams often approach the last preseason match with a regular-season mentality, which helps the players mentally and physically adjust so the season opener doesn’t come as a shock to the system.
Third-year forward Kheli Dube – who could be relied upon heavily for offensive production this season – is one player who believes in the importance of the preseason finale.
Especially for a team with so many new faces.
“We’ve been working hard all preseason, and [the RailHawks game] is going to show us how we’ve been coming together as a team,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys this year, so it will be a real test for us to see where we are heading into the new season.”
Considering the fact that the Revs have chosen to close out their preseason schedule against the RailHawks for two consecutive years now, Head Coach Steve Nicol and the technical staff must believe that the second-division club provides a worthy test at such a crucial point in the preparation process.
The RailHawks – now part of the newly-formed United States Soccer Federation Division-2 Professional League – were one of the top teams in USL-1 last year, finishing with the second-best record (16-7-7) in the regular season. As good as they were overall, they were even better at home, going 11-2-2 at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Unfortunately for the RailHawks, their 2009 postseason campaign ended in disappointment with a quarterfinal loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Carolina’s roster is littered with former MLS players like Josh Gardner, Daniel Paladini and the previously-mentioned Schulte, but one name will stick out above all others to Revolution fans. Guyanese forward Gregory Richardson scored six goals and added five assists after signing with the RailHawks midseason in 2009, but he’ll best be remembered for the hat trick he scored against the Revolution at Gillette Stadium in 2008, when he was representing Trinidad & Tobago club Joe Public FC in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Beyond the RailHawks’ talent on the field, they also provide a quality preseason tune-up simply because of the atmosphere at WakeMed Soccer Park. The projected forecast is ideal and a healthy crowd is expected to fill the stands, which will help set the stage for the Revolution’s regular-season opener at The Home Depot Center next weekend.
The atmosphere will be extra-special for rookie forward Zack Schilawski, who not only had a standout four-year career at nearby Wake Forest University, but also grew up in Cary, right down the road from WakeMed Soccer Park.
While Schilawski will be playing in front of a horde of friends and family on Saturday night, his primary focus will be on preparing for his first professional game next weekend.
Schilawski has paired up with Dube throughout the preseason, and the partnership has steadily developed as the weeks have passed. Saturday night’s meeting with the RailHawks will provide one more chance for the duo to work together before the season kicks off.
Both players have reaped the rewards of the combination this preseason, and Schilawski (three goals, one assist) and Dube (one goal, two assists) are looking increasingly likely to find their names in the starting lineup when the regular season begins next week.
“I think we complement each other,” Dube said. “We listen to each other. We’re both forwards, so I can learn something from him and he can learn something from me. It’s been working the past couple of weeks.”
Schilawski agreed with Dube’s assessment that communication has played a major factor in the pair’s success.
“[Kheli] communicates with me a lot, which I appreciate” he said. “I think we’re a little bit similar in the runs that we make sometimes, but with each game we’ve started to change it up a little bit more and be a little bit more dynamic.”
No matter what happens on the field on Saturday night, the Revolution’s 12-day journey to North Carolina will almost certainly be considered a success. Seven outdoor training sessions and three preseason games have provided the perfect preparation for the impending regular-season schedule.
“The whole team has looked good,” Dube said. “We’ve been working so hard each and every day, and it’s not just about the attack – it’s about the whole team. We’ve got a lot of new players, so we’ve got to get used to it. I think we’ve been doing pretty well, and [Saturday night] we’re going to see where we are as a team.”