“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.”