Chattanooga has experienced a series of revitalizations in recent years, from the riverfront renovation to the emergence of its outdoor assets. From avant-garde arts districts to the progressive, gig-enhanced Innovation District, the city hasn’t run out of things to boast about. Even spectator sports keep evolving as The Chattahooligans at Finley Stadium eagerly cheer for the Chattanooga Football Club, as a solid season comes to a close.
Founded in 2009, the club instantly became a source of sporting pride for the city and has been at the center of Chattanooga’s Southside revitalization. General Manager Sean McDaniel explains.
“Seven years ago Finley Stadium and the Southside of Chattanooga were not animated at all, it was very dormant,” says McDaniel. “So the idea was, well let’s just put soccer there, let’s just put something in there and let’s generate some level of interest for the Southside.” After deciding to join the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), the story of CFC was about to commence. McDaniel continues, “To our pleasant surprise thousands of people supported that decision and we’ve never looked back.”
Tim Kelly, co-founder and board member, says the club is an “authentically Chattanooga phenomenon” and that CFC means a great deal to the city. “This is not Atlanta’s team; this is not a professional team or a foreign team. This is Chattanooga’s team and they cheer as if it’s their own, they live and breathe as if it’s their own.”
Being located in Chattanooga, coupled with the fanatical supporters, CFC has been able to fill the roster with the hottest talent in the area. One of those talents is Captain James Moore, a former University of West Florida player. Moore led his team to glory earlier this year as CFC defeated the Michigan Bucks to lift the Steinbrecher Cup—an achievement that labels CFC as the nation’s best amateur team. Despite the on-field success the team has experienced, Moore says the best experience he has had in a CFC shirt comes through participation in the local community.Is it community involvement that makes the club special? With programs in place to support youth development for girls and boys, a fledgling woman’s team, the construction of Highland Park’s turf field and the newly formed CFC Foundation, the club is very much involved in the local area. “We really do believe that the sport has a unique power to unify people of different nationalities and of different races,” says Kelly.
Over the past four years the team has been under the command of Bill Elliot, who has been coaching at collegiate level for over two decades. Having competed as a player himself at Hixson High School and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Elliot has the expertise to assemble a team capable of challenging for championships. “It’s a long process of scouting players at various colleges, getting recommendations from coaches, and communicating with past players. It takes five to six months,” Elliot explains. “I admire the way Barcelona plays, but we are self-aware enough to know we are not Barcelona.”
One person that revels in the Barcelona style of play that Elliot’s men try to emulate is Galen Riley, arguably the loudest and proudest of all the Chattahooligans—a passionate fan-base that creates ripples across the city when they roar for their team. There is no mistaking Riley on a match day; clothed in blue, equipped with a megaphone, and a pair of lungs ready to bellow out a medley of chants. He is the instigator to all the noise that the CFC faithful make. With support like this and a lot of hard work, CFC has won the Southeast Division on four occasions. With all this success it begs the question which CFC game was the best one to witness? The Championship semi-final game versus Sacramento Gold that saw nearly 9,000 in attendance may be a contender, but Riley confidently answers, “The next one.” He looks forward to the prospect of seeing his beloved CFC play again.
“So there was a team,” Riley says innocently. “And, nobody told us you weren’t meant to support lower league teams,” as he explains the stimulus for the creation of the Chattahooligans. With this obvious desire to satisfy their thirst for soccer with a splash of entertainment from CFC, it is evident that the ‘beautiful game’ is being embraced by Chattanoogans. Whether it is a home match or a game on the road, Riley, who wisely carries a pocketful of throat lozenges, and his posse are eager to sacrifice their voices in order to encourage their soccer stars.
It seems all the ingredients are present to continue this adventure; talented players, loyal fans, and level-headed leaders behind the scenes. McDaniel and Kelly understand that being the best amateur team in the nation invites attention from bigger clubs to sign CFC players, but their vision for CFC will not see them turn into stepping stone for players to develop and move on.
“From a team component we should be clear, this is beyond just developing players. We want to win and winning is what generates enthusiasm and brings a lot of eyes to the city,” says McDaniel. The team’s strong performances on the field have resulted in seats continually being filled at Finley Stadium. The reason for the success?
“I think we’ve created a bit of a vicious circle; we treat the players well, the players love to play here which brings fans to games which inspires players, they win, more fans come to the game,” says Kelly. “It’s worked pretty well so far. To our own amazement and surprise it’s one of those things where a plan comes together.”
McDaniel gives his own take on the club’s accomplishments as he says, “it’s no secret winning generates a higher interest. There’s a clear objective from our leadership to develop and bring in the best talent the best coach the best we can do to win.” McDaniel has a clear understanding of the spirit of the game and its ability to bring people together, even if his thoughts are not entirely in line with the famous words of former Liverpool Football Club manager, Bill Shankly, who once said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” McDaniel’s interpretation of success is a closer reflection to the mentality of this city. “Success—even beyond wins and losses—this is an event for people and families to come to.”
Learn more at chattanoogafc.com