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Sellout, Signing Make for Pivotal Week for RailHawks

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CARY—This already was going to be a big day for the Carolina RailHawks before the name "Omar Bravo" crossed anyone's minds. The Triangle's first-ever visit from a Premier League team on Tuesday, one that doesn't figure to be the last, was no trifling matter.

By the time RailHawks President Curt Johnson started dropping hints on Twitter late Monday of a marquee signing, quickly followed by numerous reports out of Mexico that Chivas star Omar Bravo - the 36-year-old captain of one of Mexico's biggest clubs and a longtime member of the national team - was the targeted player, West Ham was forced to share the Triangle soccer spotlight.

With the English club on the field at WakeMed Soccer Park and Bravo officially introduced at halftime before making a 10-minute cameo appearance, there's no question this week represented a turning point for the RailHawks, who have lurched forward in fits and starts since their founding a decade ago but have never been more relevant on the national and world soccer stage.

Even in the latter half of his fourth decade, Bravo is a legitimate star, a veteran of 65 appearances with the Mexican national team, one who still should be capable of dominating at the North American Soccer League level. Johnson and Bravo were familiar with many of the same people from Bravo's brief but heralded Major League Soccer stint with Kansas City almost a decade ago - Bravo scored nine goals in 28 games - but when Johnson and new owner Stephen Malik promised help at forward after a popgun offense derailed the RailHawks' spring NASL season, no one expected this.

The RailHawks have long lacked and long sought a Latino star, although not for lack of trying. That led to the much-ballyhooed 2009 signing of Uruguayan midfielder Marcelo Romero, whose knees already had retired and who never played a competitive match for the RailHawks. There's no comparison between that fiasco and this coup. Bravo, Chivas' all-time leading goal-scorer, just scored another this week.

Bravo's arrival threatened to overshadow West Ham's visit, which is notable of itself. Barring an improbable, impossible run to the World Club Cup (win the U.S. Open Cup, win the CONCACAF Champions League) this is as close as the RailHawks will get to this level of competition. They even led briefly, thanks to a West Ham own goal, before proceedings ended in a 2-2 tie in front of a record 10,125.

There are only 20 Premier League teams, all in tremendous demand for preseason tours around the world. Only a few come to the United States; for the RailHawks to entice one is a tremendous coup. The RailHawks will do a little better than breaking even thanks to a sold-out crowd, with East London expatriates coming from all over the country.

West Ham might be the first of these teams to visit but is doubtful to be the last. The fields and facilities at WakeMed Soccer Park are ideal for large-squad training, as the U.S. men's and women's national teams can attest, and the North Carolina heat and humidity is a bracing test for teams used to playing in cooler climates. Add in the luxurious amenities of the Umstead Hotel, where West Ham has been staying, and word will spread quickly among elite European teams.

"It's a small world," Johnson said. "We now have a global reputation."

Together, all of this trumps the Open Cup wins against MLS teams. This is how the real soccer world lives: Big-name opponents, big-name signings. And the RailHawks, after years of fits and starts, after flirting with extinction at their lowest point, are finally a part of it.

The momentum has been building since Malik took over; in need of goals, the RailHawks already signed one forward at midseason, before Bravo even entered the picture. Now they're splashing cash everywhere. Wherever the RailHawks go from here, there's a decent chance they'll look back at this week as the moment their trajectory altered forever.

Related Link:   http://www.newsobserver.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/luke-decock/article89228062.html

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