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Official Review by Mark Jones, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Quietly, the Carolina Railhawks have carved their own hometown niche in the basketball and hockey-centric North Carolina Triangle.
Between the flashy, flamboyant Depot 309—the absolute die-hards of Railhawks soccer—and the scattered collections of soccer moms and five-kid families, the Railhawks' present a typical NASL soccer scene on the average night.
But not every night is the average night. Two back-to-back weekend visits by the MLS powers Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA managed to draw over-capacity sellout crowds to WakeMed Stadium, even with reserves largely populating the visiting squads' starting lineups. The events were, in fact, important enough to complete Stage One of the stadium's expansion construction a month early (more on that later).
And, of course, a thrilling, come-from-behind win over the defending MLS champion L.A. Galaxy did nothing to subdue the events.
Today, five years after their inaugural 2007 season, the initial hullabaloo over a Triangle-based NASL team has slowly evolved into hushed speculation over the potential arrival of an MLS expansion franchise—and the fanbase has certainly earned it.
The team's newly-released 2013 season ticket promotion declares, "Be bold. Be orange."
After half a decade of carving out respectability underneath the shadows of colossal, attention-hogging sports giants Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and the Carolina Hurricanes, "bold" may be an understatement for this particular orange-clad club.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Hamburgers. Hot dogs. French Fries. Popcorn. Peanuts.
All of the standard fare of every small-venue sports team is available, and at reasonable prices-none of those five generic foods will set you back any more than $6.
However, the Railhawks ingenious partnership with local restaurant Backyard Bistro adds a very Carolinian twist to the list of available stomach-fillers.
The "World Cup", the Bistro's ever-popular signature sandwich, features a gracious $9 helping of classic North Carolina barbeque pork between two oft-ignored buns. The special options don't end there, though; a "Carolina Red" hot dog or Roast Beef Wrap can be had for just $7, while several Mexican-style snacks, including beef tacos and cheese nachos, are available for $6 and $5, respectively.
Refreshments are slightly less original, but an enormous mug of either beer or root beer is available for a rip-off deal of $5. Bottles of water, various sodas, Gatorade and classic North Carolina iced tea are also available for only $3.
If you're willing to do a bit more exploring, a variety of specialty stands can be found on the less-visited corners of the stadium concourse. A hot cinnamon pretzel and a fountain-sized cup of fresh-squeezed lemonade contrasts well while you take in the action.
Pro Tip: Get your food and drinks before taking your seats, or be prepared to wait well into the second half before getting your hands on any concessions. The lines reach significant length15 minutes before halftime and fill to the brim during the intermission. During those periods, it's simply not worth your wait.
The stadium and soccer park are well-designed and modern.
The picturesque entrance includes a lake and waterfall, which is bordered on two sides by a somewhat sprawling but tidy gravel parking lot and several immaculate youth soccer fields. The stadium itself is surrounded by pine forest and the occasional 200-year-old oak.
The grandstands are in the process of being expanded from a capacity of 6,883 to 10,000-a $14.5 million construction project by the City of Cary in hopes of bringing back the NCAA Women's Soccer Championships to the stadium. A daunting second-tier set of bleachers is being added to one side, while the northern goal zone's former garden has been replaced by a small grandstand of its own. The construction has placed some obstacles on the stadium's usually all-encompassing concourse, but the improvements should soon transform the stadium into a much more sizeable venue.
With sun reflecting off the closely-mowed pitch and an excited, alluring aura evaporating out of the stands, WakeMed Stadium offers a top-notch, small town-style atmosphere.
Unless you're especially infatuated with hole-in-the-wall Indian take-outs and one-story office buildings, don't come to the area for its not-so-bustling vicinity. After all, the closest business to the soccer park is a down-on-its-luck family car dealership (with a dismaying "no game parking" sign closely guarding the entrance).
The real Backyard Bistro can be found 10 to 15 minutes away, if you're in for a rowdier, more sports bar-like experience than the in-stadium counter. Here, you can find barbeque and beer, barbeque and beer, and more barbeque and beer.
Neomonde, a Mediterranean restaurant off of Wade Ave. near the I-440 exit, falls on the exact opposite end of the spectrum from a sports bar. However, if you like Greek and Middle Eastern foods, it may well be the best restaurant of that kind in the state-don't be misled by its meager exterior and needle-in-the-haystack location.
If you go just any Saturday night, WakeMed Soccer Park is a rather curious blend of European-style soccer fanaticism and bleak sections of 95% empty seats.
Depot 309, the official fan club of the RailHawks, carries an alcohol-laden, but infectiously chaotic vibe that wins over many a sober bystander. The bongo drums, the smoke-filled firecrackers, the orange and white-checkered flags, the outrageous costumes and the literally endless chants-"we all cheer for an orange 'futbol' team" being a personal favorite-are just as enchanting as they are bothersome.
But then there's the less-well known sections, where "general admission" includes the entire grandstand and cold, silver bleachers outnumber warm bodies by a 10:1 ratio (at best). The casual, well-to-do fans all go for the covered, plastic seat-filled stands near the press boxes; behind each goal, the grandstands more closely resemble a desert.
Conversely, on a special occasion (such as the Galaxy match), the stadium is absolutely filled to the brim with a mass of tangerine-tinted humanity. It's a free-for-all to grab any remaining seat (tickets don't come with rows or numbers, but merely sections) to get set for a wild, raucous night of Southern-style soccer.
All in all, don't come as a RailHawks fan simply to see other RailHawks fans. But, on the other hand, the people on hand won't detract from your game experience, either.
Despite the no man's land that surrounds it, WakeMed Stadium and Soccer Park sits right on the crossroads of the southern Triangle's biggest thoroughfares.
East-west boulevards Hillsborough St./Chapel Hill Rd. and Wade Ave. (both within two minutes of the stadium) connect downtown Raleigh and suburban Cary directly, while interstate highways I-40 (which runs past downtown Durham and southern Raleigh) and I-440 (Raleigh's inner beltline) have exits within a mile or two.
Getting to this out-of-the-way location requires surprisingly little effort and time.
The five types of admission are straightforward and cheap.
Tickets start at $10, which technically covers only the endzones. However, no entrance guards stand post on the east stand, either, despite officially costing an additional five dollars. Essentially, only the $20 Club (built-in seats) and $25 VIP (built-in seats and permanent roof overhead) give you any extra benefits. Otherwise, go with the cheapest option.
The aforementioned food prices are also just about right and merchandise ranges widely in variety and price tag, from game-worn jerseys to miniature squishy soccer balls. There's nothing pricey enough here to make you regret forking over the cash.
Pro Tip: Grab a simple $10 ticket and spend one half in each endzone, switching sides at halftime as the Railhawks themselves switch sides. It will land you right behind the action for all 90 minutes, and avoid a direct head-first collision with the vibrant late-afternoon sunrays that bathe the east side of the stadium.
One point for the clever inclusion of "Rail" in the team name, as the 7:00 Amtrak train fittingly whistles by Chatham St. just around kickoff every Saturday night. Goal celebrations also feature a whirling train horn, taking a page right out of the NHL's book.
One point for the team mascot -Swoops, the Hawk-whose theme song ("Swoops! There it is...") is just as catchy as it is copyright infringing.
One point for the team's year-long array of special events and celebrations, including two (yes, two) 4th of July fireworks games, TV viewing parties, youth soccer nights and, of course, an annual pig picking contest, with the winner landing free season tickets.
And one final point for the team's unfortunately oft-used lightning delay playlist, which includes witty tracks such as Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain", providing a little humor to fans who are willing to stick around up to four hours (per a late July fiasco) to see the match resume.
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1235 Hurricane Alley Way
Raleigh, NC 27605
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