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Official Review by Harrison Huntley, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
In an area filled with collegiate and pro sports teams, you'd never expect to find a thriving soccer community. The Triangle area in North Carolina (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill), mostly known for its basketball, has become somewhat of a soccer town in the last few decades. With more than a handful of leagues, travel teams, and other youth programs, soccer remains one of the top sports in the area. In 2002, Wake County built a 150-acre soccer park with the goal of attracting tournaments and other large soccer events. Its first pro team also came in 2002, when the Carolina Courage of the WUSA played for two years until the league folded in 2003. The Carolina RailHawks came to town in 2007 and, after a few league changes, have finally settled in the NASL.
The team has been successful in recent years with playoff appearances in five of their first eight years. They also perform well in the US Open Cup, with wins over Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy. After losing to the RailHawks in the Open Cup for the third straight year, Landon Donovan was quoted saying “I think we're sick of losing to Carolina."
With all this success, there’s been lots of talk about MLS expansion to the area, but many speculate that the move won’t happen until there’s a new stadium. Until then, the RailHawks will continue to take advantage of this major soccer market at WakeMed Stadium. Though it’s not your typical soccer-specific stadium, the supporter sections and professional atmosphere make it a great soccer experience.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concessions here seem to be a little more luxurious than you may find at other stadiums. It's not a bad thing, but you should expect the offerings to be a little more expensive. On either side, you'll find local favorite Backyard Bistro's stand. You can order the common stadium fare for either $9 (with a combo) or a la carte for around $6. Soft drinks are also available around the stadium, including sweet tea, for just $3.
WakeMed Stadium also offers an above average selection of craft beer, including one named after a player. Long-time defensemen Kupono Low is the namesake of Kupono Captain's Ale, and 10 percent of the proceeds go to The Fill Your Bucket List Foundation. Local craft beers cost $7, but can only be found on the east side of the stadium.
As soccer has become more popular in the States, it's been interesting to see how different areas have adopted the sport. In the south, you'll find tailgates like the ones at WakeMed Stadium. Fans gather in the parking lot a couple hours before the game just like you'd expect to see at a college football game. The atmosphere at this stadium can be described simply as American. Though some may take that as an insult, I don't see the problem with it. Soccer stadiums don't necessarily need to copy the European model. Whether you sit up in CASL Tower, or down in the lower level, you won't hear too much singing or cheering, outside of big plays and goals. Most fans in attendance come to sit and watch the game which is fine, but doesn't create the same kind of atmosphere a European might imagine.
The seating bowl wraps all the way around the field, but the south end zone is tarped with ads and usually isn't sold. The east and west seats, or the "permanent" seats, feature green stadium seats, certain sections with backs. The end zone and second level seating are simply metal bleachers, but can be used to create quite a bit of noise. The second level specifically, better known as CASL tower, provides a different view from the rest of the stadium. The bleachers literally sit atop the lower level seats, as to give the fans a bird's-eye view of the action. A video board was recently installed in the south end zone and adds another element for the fan. You now have a great view of the action no matter where you sit.
Ticket prices go up $2 if you're ordering them the day of the game, so plan ahead and save some money. The seating bowl is all the same level, so most of the seats offer the same view. Unless shade is a must, go with the "spectator" level for $11. If you want to avoid the sun, you should sit on the west side of the stadium. The sun will set behind you and you won't have to deal with it for long.
The biggest complaint over the years about WakeMed Stadium has been its location. The complex was built with tournaments and festivals in mind, rather than a professional team. There's literally nothing of interest within walking distance, and even worse, almost everything in area closes at 10pm or earlier, giving you little chance of a postgame meal.
There are a few chain restaurants like Subway and a Bojangles' in the immediate area and the nearby mall, but let's stick to the local places. Ole Time BBQ is right down the road from the stadium, but you'll need to get there early. It's some of the area's best BBQ with one caveat: there are about 20 seats. Depending on the day, it could fill up fast and you may need to get yours to go.
Downtown Raleigh is also a pretty close drive, and is known by many as a "foodie" town. The Pit serves local barbecue in a more upscale setting. Tobacco Road Sports Cafe consistently ranks as one of the best sports bars in the area.
Outside of the supporters sections, there isn't much going on. To their credit, the multiple supporters sections do a great job. Some have drums, others have brass instruments, and still others carry large, cardboard player faces. Get away from those fans, and it gets quiet. Many families and other casual fans fill out most of the half-full crowds that attend each game. It's not a bad atmosphere, by any means, but it's a far cry from even some of the best American teams. Hopefully as the sport continues to grow, the supporter sections grow along with it.
The supporters are nothing if not loyal. The night of my review, a major thunderstorm hit during the game and even caused the stadium to lose power. Rather than complain or simply leave, the supporters led cheers on the concourse for the majority of the delay.
You shouldn't have too much trouble finding WakeMed Stadium. Only a few miles from I-40, it's accessible from anywhere in NC. The problems arise when you get to the stadium. NC-54, the road that leads to the stadium, is just three lanes, which causes lots of traffic leading up to kick off.
Parking is $6, which isn't bad, but of course it's cash only. If walking distance is a priority for you, arrive early and park in lot C. If that's full, park in D or E. This is where all the tailgates position themselves, so you'll have a fun walk to the game.
Assuming you buy an $11 ticket and a $9 combo meal, a RailHawks game will cost about $20 a person. I'd say that's about average for the league, but cheaper than other options in the area. Major college sports will cost more than $20 for just tickets alone. While you may feel a little overcharged at WakeMed Stadium, it doesn't feel nearly as bad as other area options.
For those who may not know, here's a quick explanation of the name "RailHawks." The state of North Carolina could be said to have lived and died with the railroad. Trains carried many of the state's most famous exports, like furniture, cotton, and of course, tobacco. Many rural towns in the state once thrived as major train depots. What's more, both freight and passenger trains run across the street from WakeMed Stadium and can sometimes be heard just before the start of a game. As for the "Hawks" part, the bird is local to the area. The name won a contest and the winner, as is custom, won free season tickets.
Swoops, who I suppose is the only Railhawk in existence, is the team's mascot. He mostly roams the stands sitting with fans or cheering with the supporters.
Minor league soccer always surprises me with the number of in-game promotions. Unlike minor league baseball or hockey, there are no game stoppages during which to run promos. The RailHawks, like other NASL and USL teams, announce games and contests while the ball is in play.
Before you attend a RailHawks game, make sure you know your intentions. If you intention is to be on your feet cheering and singing the whole game, make sure you get a seat in one of the supporter sections. If you'd rather just sit down and enjoy the night, choose a seat closer to the south end zone. Both types of fans will enjoy themselves at a RailHawks game, but they don't mix well. WakeMed Stadium is a great stadium for almost anyone and that shouldn't go unnoticed. Until the town and the owners can figure out a new stadium, it will continue to serve as a great place for Triangle soccer fans to enjoy their sport.
Member Review by MarkJones on Aug 21, 2012
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.
1235 Hurricane Alley Way
Raleigh, NC 27605
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