MLS Expansion: 4-Hour Thunderstorm Delay Raises Questions About Southeast US

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MLS Expansion: 4-Hour Thunderstorm Delay Raises Questions About Southeast US
Photo Credit: Chris Owens, Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ocell/27389891/)

In NASL action last night, the Carolina Railhawks defeated the Minnesota Stars 1-0 to pull within eight points of the league lead.

That wouldn't be notable news in the national soccer scene, except for one rather interesting twist—the game finished at 12:58 a.m.

Why so late?

Thunderstorms.

Four hours of them.

Lightning was first spotted just moments into the second half—with precisely 47:24 on the clock—and the game officially entered a rain delay at 8:17 p.m. local time.

The 3,158 announced fans were cleared from the stands, the stadium loudspeakers began an endless run of weather-related songs and the storms began.

And continued. 

And continued.

At 11:51 p.m. local time, the two teams at last returned to the field for another round of warmups.

At 12:23 a.m. local time, the game finally resumed play after a league-record four hours and six minutes of rain delay.

The game highlights courtesy of CarolinaRailhawks.com

And 43 minutes of regulation and three minutes of stoppage time later, the Railhawks walked off the WakeMed Soccer Park Field for the final time, having battled through a six-hour-long match to earn a 1-0 victory...

 

...On a goal in the 10th minute.

Railhawks' coach Colin Clarke was, understandably, a bit irritated:

Still, the win did pull Carolina (6-6-5, 24 pts.) into fifth place in the eight-team NASL standings and extended the club's league record since June 1st to 6-1-1.

But that's not the only impact of Saturday's game in Cary.

The MLS will also be closely eying last night's box score. After all, the league is looking seriously into a Southeast US expansion team—and the Railhawks are top candidates to be that expansion.

Per ESPN, MLS president Mark Abbott visited the Raleigh-Cary area in April and had good things to say about the area's soccer passion:

"Mark Abbott visited the North Carolina Triangle on Thursday as a guest of the Carolina Railhawks and met with fans and local business leaders to "get a sense of the community."

Photo Credit: http://www.carolinarailhawks.com/index.php?id=111&newsid=2672

'Today was about really coming down and getting a deeper understanding of soccer in this community,' Abbott said. 'It wasn't a sort of checklist-type of exercise on the road to making an expansion decision. It was an opportunity to learn more about this community and what's happening here in soccer.'"

 

Luke DeCock of the Raleigh News & Observer also articulated what has become a passionate soccer following in the Triangle:

"The only question MLS should be asking with regard to the Triangle is not “if?” or “how?” but merely “when?” There are legitimate questions to be asked, about ownership and facilities, and some serious hurdles to clear, but this market is as good a fit for MLS as MLS is for this market.

The summer MLS season doesn’t coincide with college football, college basketball or the NHL; with 17 home dates, MLS is a better fit for this area’s population than baseball and there are few markets in the country with more interest in the sport at every level than the Triangle."

There are certainly a number of indicators around the Raleigh area that could point towards an MLS franchise.

The Railhawks ranked third in NASL in 2011 with an average attendance of just 3,353, but drew a record sellout crowd of 7,939 in a match against a mostly-reserve L.A. Galaxy squad during the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup in May. The home side scored twice in the game's final 16 minutes to win, 2-1.

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The club then drew 7,117 fans the following week against Chivas USA, despite eventually losing 2-1. 

WakeMed Soccer Park, the club's current home, is also undergoing a $6.3 million grandstand expansion to increase capacity from 7,000 to 10,000 by later this summer.

 

With a larger, more up-to-date stadium and weekly showdowns with MLS teams and their starting players, the Triangle's soccer interest could continue to skyrocket with the blessing of an expansion franchise.

But the weather could also turn such an experiment sour.

Simply put, the MLS isn't too accustomed to thunderstorms. Of the league's 19 current cities with franchises, only four—Columbus, Kansas City, Dallas and Houston—fall in climates of moderate-to-high lightning density.

By comparison, per the National Weather Service, the next four days of Raleigh weather forecasts all include the words "T-storms," and each has a chance of rain of 30 percent or higher.

That's the way it is every week, every summer.

Saturday night's storms dumped 1.29 inches of rain on Raleigh in a mere six-hour span and issued Severe Weather warnings on 23 North Carolina counties.

Over a three-and-a-half hour period—which fell right in the middle of the Railhawks' once-promising match—at least one lightning strike occurred within three miles of WakeMed Soccer Park every 10 minutes for over 200 consecutive minutes.

Soccer weather? Not exactly.

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