“Soccer hotbed” may not be the first thought that comes to your mind when someone says Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Yet NPSL side Chattanooga FC is helping the city known for a song about a train, the world’s longest pedestrian bridge, and birthplace of the “moonpie” become a substantial soccer hub in the southeastern United States.
Having begun play in 2009, the club has been one of the most consistent sides in the NPSL, going to the league’s championship match in 2010, 2012 and 2014 while appearing in its fourth U.S. Open Cup this year. Playing its home games at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium, CFC’s success on the field has also spurred interest in the stands. The club averaged 3,600 fans per game last season and also holds the NPSL’s attendance record, drawing 8,878 for a playoff match with Sacramento Gold in 2014.
“When my partners and I started this thing seven years ago, the intention was to make Chattanooga a focal point for all things soccer,” said General Manager Sean McDaniel. “The word ‘grassroots’ is spot on and we did it in steps. First it was to get our local community behind us -- that included having a great relationship with our stadium and youth organizations. It built into a regional following -- within our NPSL conference, in the past seven years, we’ve certainly had success on the field and we’ve worked hard not to just promote soccer in the city, but the city itself. We wanted to make Chattanooga a destination point for people all over the country. Soccer was the catalyst and we couldn’t be more pleased with the results.”
In turn, the atmosphere that the club’s supporters, aptly named “The Chattahooligans,” provide at Finley Stadium helps give Chattanooga FC a leg up on attracting top collegiate talent to fill out its roster each year.
Goalkeeper Gregory Hartley made two penalty saves before converting the winning kick in the team’s First Round shootout victory over Ocala Stampede.
Photo Credit: Madonna Kemp
“We’ve been able to show these guys what type of city, environment and fan base they’ll be playing in front of,” McDaniel continued. “For all of them, they’re playing at some type of collegiate level or have just ended their collegiate career and have never played for a fan base or a following like this one in their life. When they get here and experience the tremendous support we have, it does get easier to recruit the type of talent we get.
“Honestly, we still have to fight amongst other teams -- there are some tremendous organizations across the country that are fighting for the same top quality guys. We try to put our best face in front of them as we can – that’s the crowd support and the environment in the city. It’s becoming easier and easier to sell every year.”
Some of the players that Chattanooga has attracted include goalkeeper Gregory Hartley, who made two penalty saves before converting the winning kick in the team’s First Round shootout victory over Ocala Stampede. Forward Chris Ocheing set up Luke Winter’s late equalizer to send that match to extra time, and last Wednesday Ochieng did it again with a late tying goal against the Wilmington Hammerheads to send the match to extra time and the eventual shootout win.
Though it goes down in the books as a draw, the penalty kick victory marked the second year in a row Chattanooga dispatched the professional USL side in the Second Round of the Open Cup. The win sets up a match against another familiar opponent as the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks will return to Finley Stadium for Wednesday’s third-round encounter.
Though not traditionally known for its Open Cup exploits, the Second Division side from Atlanta made easy work of Chattanooga in that match, casting them out of the 2014 tournament with a 5-0 drubbing.
While the Fourth Division outfit remains realistic about their chances against a fully professional Silverbacks side, McDaniel says the team is better prepared for the match than they were last year and hopes that the expected 4,000-plus supporters in Finley Stadium will help the effort.
“The difference between last year and this year is it was the first real run for everybody and first time we’ve gone that deep,” he said. “This year, it’s a businesslike mentality from the players and the coaching staff. It’s very exciting, very honoring, but very practical to us as well as far as what job needs to be done. The biggest change is that last year we were just happy to be there. This year, we just feel this sense that we deserve to be here and let’s play like we deserve to be here. I expect the Silverbacks will be very strong like last year but mentally and emotionally this will be more business.”
Photo Credit: Tracey Pattarozzi Stiegler
The winner of the match would advance to a Fourth Round date away to the New York Red Bulls on June 16. If it’s Chattanooga that is victorious, it would set up a historic week for soccer in the city as the club will also host the Hank Steinbrecher Cup on Friday and Saturday at Finley Stadium.
Despite finishing as NPSL runners-up in 2014, Chattanooga FC gained entry to the tournament, which is named for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s former Secretary General, after the champion New York Red Bulls U-23 side moved to the PDL this season. The tournament brings the reigning PDL champion Michigan Bucks, USASA Open champion Maryland Bays and Amateur champion New York Greek American SC together to determine the nation’s Amateur National Champion.
With success in the U.S. Open Cup and events like the Steinbrecher Cup helping Chattanooga continue to make waves in the national soccer conversation, the thought of higher aspirations for the club is something that is under careful evaluation according to McDaniel.
“I think we’d be short sighted if we were content with where we are right now. We’re very happy with the NPSL and the support we get within our community. We also know we want to continue growing the sport and whether that’s jumping up a level or just being hosts to great hosts to big events like the Steinbrecher Cup here in Chattanooga, it’s ‘on the white board’ as they say. Right now we get through the season with what we’re doing and at the end of the year we sit down as a board if we want to go to the next step. We’re always looking to grow and make this thing better.”
On Feb. 9, 2013, the U.S. Women’s National Team kicked off the new year with a 4-1 victory against Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida. Christen Press, then 24-years-old, was responsible for two goals that day, scoring in the 13th minute and adding another in the 32nd to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead at halftime.
The early goal was Press’ first for the USA, coming in a match that was also her first cap.
Becky Sauerbrunn hugs Christen Press in the aftermath of Press scoring on her WNT debut.
Earning that first cap is special for any player, but a debut and a goal in the same game? That’s a rare feat. In the 30+ year history of the U.S. WNT 21 players have scored in their first caps.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Press’ path to that first game three years ago was an interesting one. In early 2012, she made the decision to move to Sweden after U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer folded. Press thought leaving the country might negatively impact her hopeful National Team career, but little did she know, it was only just beginning.
“I think just because I always thought that the National Teams would be watching the American league, I thought that going abroad was kind of like saying goodbye to my dream of playing for the National Team,” recalled Press. “I left around this time, in February, and I thought I would not get a call, I sort of thought that I would fall out of U.S. Soccer’s radar.”
As it turns out, head coach Pia Sundhage kept tabs on players in Europe, especially in her native land of Sweden. Press got off to a hot start with her new club, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way back home.
Press returned to the U.S. and joined the WNT in Florida in April during the final stretch of what had been an intense fitness camp. She kept to herself and tried to quickly learn as much as possible despite only being there for five days.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It was my first camp, it was warm and I was so happy. I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was not nervous, I was just happy to be in Florida and my dream was coming true. I’m always quiet when I don’t know my surroundings, so I just kept to myself trying to learn the rules, how to behave; it was all so quick.”
That short stint turned out to be the only one for Press before she was named an Olympic alternate in 2012. The following February, Tom Sermanni took over as WNT head coach, and it was then Press learned she would start against Scotland. Her chance had arrived.
“I went on the field, the crowd was so much bigger than I’d ever played in front of, and for me it was so much bigger than life,” said Press. “But I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m confident, I’m a good player and I believe in myself.’”
Years and multiple goals later, plus one Women’s World Cup title to her name, the dream is alive and well for Press.
Press celebrates scoring her first World Cup goal against Australia in the USA's opening match of the 2015 Women's World Cup