UPDATE: (National Premier Soccer League) Celebrating a National Premier Soccer League title at home would be a fitting conclusion to a dream season for Chattanooga FC.
The accomplishments have come fast and furious for the Tennessee-based club in 2015. In addition to representing the South Region in the league championship, CFC hosted and won the U.S. Soccer National Amateur Championship, advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open Cup and shattered its own league attendance record (9,236) in the regional finals.
There’s no guarantee that this fairytale will have a happy ending, though. CFC has become all-too-familiar with the label of runners-up, reaching the finals three other times (2010, ’12 and ’14) in its seven-year history. Following the three-goal second-half outburst that propelled CFC past Midwest Region champ Indiana Fire last weekend, the Chattahooligans – the collective name of the club’s fans – will have its first chance to witness a league final.
Chattanooga FC general manager Sean McDaniel sees Saturday’s match against New York Cosmos B (7:30 p.m. Davenport Field in Finley Stadium, game to be streamed live as well) partly as just another 90 minutes to prepare for, but also as a relished opportunity to exorcise playoff demons.
“As always, we’re focused on what’s right in front of us,” McDaniel said of the approaching contest. “That’s not a win or a loss just yet, it’s a game to be played. And we’ll play that game with the same grace, passion, energy, and determination that we bring to each of our matches.
“We’ll be playing to win and to bring the (so far) elusive Championship Cup to Chattanooga. If we can do that at home, none of our near misses will mean a thing.”
Hank and the Good Omens
On the surface, Chattanooga FC’s 2015 regular season wasn’t much different than the three previous trips to the National Championship game. A stout defense – which finished in the region’s top two in fewest goals allowed in all three playoff runs, and has never conceded more than 10 goals in any season since its formation – was again complemented by star-studded attack.
Local rivalries – perhaps in the name of the Volunteer Shield Derby only – between CFC and the Knoxville Force and Nashville FC were still largely one-sided, if a boon for attendance, with Chattanooga compiling a record of 8-1-1 vs. those foes since 2014.
The chief difference, according to the team’s administration, was an ambitious late-May tournament slate, which would prove CFC could compete – and even excel – against heavyweights from other leagues.
Compared to the 5-0 thumping against the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Silverbacks, a fully professional side, in the third round of the 2014 U.S. Open Cup, Chattanooga FC faced the same foe in the 2015 tournament, falling just 2-1 on a controversial second-half penalty, a sign that CFC boasted an even more resolute squad than the previous year.
Just two days later, Chattanooga welcomed chance to host the Hank Steinbrecher Cup, the final weekend of the U.S. Soccer National
Amateur Championship. Resounding victories over defending amateur champion Maryland Bays, 2-0, and defending Premier Development League winners Michigan Bucks, 3-0, amplified the community’s excitement about CFC – already gaining steam after the respectable Open Cup defeat -- to a fever pitch, while testing the club’s mettle against elite competition.
“Winning the Steinbrecher Cup was an incredible honor for the club, and a visible signal to the community that we may be poised for something special this year,” reflected McDaniel, one of the club’s founding members. “Taking that Cup at home was a momentum builder as we headed into the second half of league play.”
Why It Works
Fans of amateur soccer are quick to realize that fervent supporter communities can be built, even if certain conditions encourage more explosive growth than others.
For Chattanooga, you can certainly point to the pro-bono efforts of Widgets and Stone, a local branding and design studio that immediately gave CFC a clean, professional look in 2009 and, thus, a reason to be taken seriously. The other factors that swung in
Chattanooga FC’s favor stem from the community’s character and affinity for rallying behind something of its own, not a dearth of local sports alternatives.
“I think the success of the club in Chattanooga has stemmed from the mission of the club to have a positive impact on this community through the game of soccer,” said McDaniel. “Our early sponsorship through Volkswagen came at a time of great pride and excitement about the location of VW’s only US production facility in Chattanooga, and so that led to initial curiosity and excitement about the club.
“But our staying power has come from allowing our community to take ownership of the club. This is Chattanooga’s team, and Chattanoogans take great pride in those things that define them as a community. The team wasn’t built on top of that community, it was built through and within it. We feel like that has led to the strongest and most dedicated fan base in the NPSL.”
The national waves created by the Chattanooga faithful have reaped rewards, too. The U.S. women’s national team will play an Aug. 19 friendly at Finley Stadium as part of the World Cup winners’ Victory Tour, a phenomenal accomplishment – and opportunity – for a city that was a soccer backwater just a decade ago.
First, though, if recent numbers are any indication, Finley Stadium could welcome more than 10,000 fans on Saturday night – a local TV station suggests a previously unused side of Finley could be available for seating -- as the vocal, unrelenting Chattahooligans urge on CFC.
The Personnel: How a Dynasty was Built
What may be most interesting about CFC to the casual soccer fan is its roster. Although the reputation of head coach Bill Elliott, the opportunity to play in front of thousands of fans and powerful word-of-mouth recruiting all appeal to prospective athletes, it’s not like CFC comprises all former professionals or Southeastern Conference starlets.
Take decorated goalie Greg Hartley, for example. Although he’s a product of Manchester City’s academy in England, he chose to play collegiately at NAIA program Georgia Gwinnett before finding his niche at Chattanooga FC, where he’s earned the NPSL’s Golden Glove award two years running and solidified a place in the All-NPSL Best XI for the last three years.
"Greg is just a phenomenal keeper," head coach Bill Elliott told the Chattanooga Times Free Press during the 2014 playoffs. "The only reason I could figure out that he's not in the MLS is because he's not 6-foot-4 [he’s 5’10], but his loss is our gain."
Elliott’s NPSL roster includes several current and former players from NCAA Division II’s Gulf South Conference, where the head coach has directed both the men’s and women’s programs at West Florida University since 1995. He just captured the NPSL’s Alexander Arellano Memorial Trophy, given annually to the league’s top coach, for the second straight season.
Two of Elliott’s former college players – holding midfielder Matt Aldred and defender James Moore – are starters for CFC, while past and present fall foes like midfielder Leo de Smedt (Alabama-Huntsville), an All-NPSL second team selection this year, and Sean Rutter and Jose “Zeca” Ferraz, both of Christian Brothers University, set aside their rivalries during the summer. De Smedt, who missed the NPSL semifinal vs. Indiana due to injury, is listed as day-to-day and will be a game-time decision for Saturday’s tilt.
Chattanooga FC’s best-known striker is Luke Winter, a 2014 All-NPSL first teamer and lethal finisher (12 goals in 2015, despite battling injury), but it was Chris Ochieng, formerly of tiny NAIA school Milligan College, who struck twice in a 10-minute span of the second half to down the Fire.
Only three regulars – midfielders Luis Trude (Marquette University) and Wil Linder (Memphis University), plus center back Nick Edginton (Marshall) – have featured at the NCAA Division I level, proving that it’s the collection and chemistry of talent, not the college pedigrees, that can vault a solid squad to an amateur dynasty.
A Nightmare Interrupts
The dream campaign was not without a rude interruption that sent tremors throughout both the Chattanooga community and the U.S. at large.
Shootings at two Chattanooga military centers on July 17 claimed the lives of four U.S. Marines, and, later, a Navy sailor, devastating the surrounding community. The deaths were a particular shock to the CFC organization, as Finley Stadium sits about 10 minutes from the spot of the tragedy.
“The shootings were, to be blunt, a punch to the gut,” McDaniel said. “As a community, we were shocked and dazed, and our organization was no exception. At the same time, the tragedy reminded us that we are a community. A community that is more than and stronger than one act of senseless violence.
“In Chattanooga, the shootings did not breed hatred, they bred love and a determination to move forward with strength and unity.”
Just one day after the shootings, Chattanooga FC hosted the Miami Fusion in the regional semifinal; CFC wore unifying black arm bands, lowered the flags at Finley Stadium and sold t-shirts reading #NoogaStrong, which raised money to support the victims’ families.
After the narrow 1-0 victory, Elliott’s post-match quote to ChattanoogaFC.com was particularly stirring.
"What happened this week humbled us all and put things in perspective," he said. "Emotionally, I wanted this win for the city of Chattanooga more than any match I've ever coached in. I'm incredibly lucky, incredibly blessed to be a part of what I hope is the healing process beginning.”
Fantastic Finley: The Table is Set
The bond connecting the Chattanooga FC community has never been stronger – tragedy has a strange power to unite – and that’s given Chattahooligans a perspective grander than Saturday’s championship match.
New York Cosmos B, the league’s top seed and only team to avoid defeat this year, is a daunting adversary. With perhaps its best side ever, record-setting fan support and a boisterous home-field advantage, will Chattanooga FC bring home its first NPSL title?
PREVIOUS: It's not often that a national championship match can be used as a dress rehearsal for an exhibition game, but big things are happening in the Chattanooga soccer world and this weekend is lining up to be a big one for the city as well.
For the first time, the team will host the NPSL National Championship Saturday and in two weeks, the World Cup winning U.S. Women's National Team. Both events will involve moving a large rabid fan base.
Preparations will run right up until the first people arrive.
"The environment where a national championship should really be played, with the two best teams in the country, should be one where there will be a lot of fans and a nice big soccer stadium," said Sean McDaniel GM, Chattanooga FC.
Ask and ye shall receive. The National Premiere Soccer League Championship kicks-off Saturday night..
Why the Scenic City? First, because your Chattanooga Football Club is that good.
Second, because the team's following has grown exponentially.
"Yeah, it's really exciting to be able to do this here and to show that Chattanooga can be a soccer city," said Melissa Perry CFC Fan.
Channel 3 caught Melissa Perry picking up her tickets Friday afternoon. She, like thousands that will #FillFinley, is still a new fan to the game, but she's no shrinking violet in the stands.
"I actually didn't even get into soccer until we came here and I love it so it's really, it's really fun. We're part of the Chattahooligans so we are like family," said Perry.
"The Chattahooligans are nuts, and they're part of the show, really. They're just a bunch of normal folks who are soccer fans in Chattanooga fans," said Paul Smith, Ex. Dir., Finley Stadium.
Paul Smith has been prepping both grandstands at Finley Stadium for their presence.
"We kind of established benchmark, presale-wise, where it would happen and we were there by Wednesday. So, at that point, we had to scramble and get the north side ready," said Smith.
A quantum leap from last year's watch party for a couple of thousand fans across the street at the First Tennessee Pavilion, last year.
"We were able to gauge our need to open the other side because of the online ticket sales. We're already at 9,000," said McDaniel.
That was 24 hours before either team takes the pitch. Walk-up might nearly double that number.
The league and CFC's opponents agreed on Chattanooga, part of the deal involved getting the New York Cosmos here.
"A game of this magnitude needs to be placed in a city in a stadium in an environment where way so many great passionate fans," said McDaniel.
Chestnut Street will be closed at noon on Saturday. Reggie White Boulevard will be shut down at 1 p.m. to get ready for the fans and the game at 7 p.m.
An Amber Alert issued for a missing 4-year-old boy from Memphis has been canceled.More
An Amber Alert issued for a missing 4-year-old boy from Memphis has been canceled.More