ℹ Chattanooga Football Club’s debut 10 seasons ago literally began with a perfect storm. In May 2009, the soccer club was preparing for its inaugural match at ℹ Finley Stadium, but Mother Nature seemed to have other plans that could derail Chattanooga’s newest sports franchise before it could even get started.
“We had no idea what to expect, and the weather could not have been worse,” said Krue Brock, one of CFC’s founders. “The refs were about to cancel the match, and I went down and said ‘This is our first match and it’s so important, can you please just wait 30 more minutes and try to let us play.’”
The referees that night weren’t the only ones willing to wait out the storm on the Southside. With little more than word-of-mouth marketing, the organizers were unsure of who would come out to support the new club, however CFC tapped into civic pride in ways they perhaps didn’t expect.
“I remember being on the field waiting for the storm to pass, and there were just a few hundred people in the stands,” CFC General Manager Sean McDaniel recalled. “But when we finally kicked off, there were 1,600 or 1,700 people at Finley Stadium to watch soccer on a rainy and thunderous night for a game that was delayed two hours.
“When we saw that, I think we all said to ourselves ‘We really may have something here.’”
The dream of the Chattanooga Football Club actually began more than a decade earlier when the Chattanooga Railroaders (later the Chattanooga Express) soccer club, started in 1993 to little fanfare.
“Back then there was no soccer in America at a higher level,” McDaniel said. “High school was it, and there was nothing after, but there was this fledgling league that myself and (CFC assistant coach) Jimmy Weekley played on. Nobody came to the games. Wives, girlfriends and mothers were the fan base, but that’s where it started.”
More than 10 years after the Express faded away, Brock felt the time was right to bring an organized soccer club back to the Scenic City. He gathered former Express players McDaniel and Weekley along with Tim Kelly, Paul Rustand and others in February 2009 with the goal of putting a team on the field just three months later. Among Brock’s motivations was the ability to attract and keep good people in Chattanooga—it was starting its growth into a new kind of city.
“We had a guy come live with my family after leaving the Air Force Academy, and he was a great guy, one who I wanted to stay in Chattanooga,” Brock said. “He had played soccer in the Air Force and would go to Birmingham on the weekends to play soccer.
“He finally told me that if Chattanooga had a team he would play here…So we put a group of people together and started looking at how to make that happen.”
With Brian Crossman coaching the first teams, CFC started a run in 2009 that has become the talk—not only of Chattanooga—but of the entire soccer world. It’s a success story than perhaps only could have happened in Chattanooga and only when it did.
“CFC has been the beneficiary of everything that’s great about Chattanooga,” McDaniel said. “We showed up at the right time because Chattanooga was emerging into its renaissance.
“We were re-imaging our city and creating a new culture and new ways of living. Plus with companies like Volkswagen coming into the city, we were the recipients of all the great hard work that went into the growth of Chattanooga.”
REPRESENTING THE CITY
While the public face of Chattanooga Football Club remains the men’s team that takes the field during the spring and summer months, CFC leaders take their civic pride seriously and use the CFC brand to spread the love for soccer throughout the area to all people. A CFC women’s team, coached by Gretchen Hammel, has added to the on-field excitement, and in the community the ℹ Chattanooga FC Foundation works in conjunction with the teams to bring soccer to hundreds or thousands of others throughout the Chattanooga area.
The Foundation is comprised of three separate initiatives; the CFC Academy providing top-level youth soccer instruction, Chattanooga Sports Ministries using faith-based sports initiatives, and Operation Get Active providing affordable soccer and exercise in area elementary schools.
“Chattanooga Sports Ministries and Operation Get Active are very parallel initiatives that have the potential to create mentoring and real engagement with kids who may not have as much access to coaching,” said Brock, who heads up much of the CFC Foundation work. “The role of a mentor/coach in young people’s lives is paramount to health development.” Since it began in 2016, Operation Get Active has grown from three Hamilton County elementary schools to now serving hundreds of children in 17 schools. “Getting kids into that mode of being active in elementary school will hopefully carry on into middle school and beyond,” program Director Peter Woolcock said.
Operation Get Active offers kids a 10-week after-school soccer program for $10 in which they learn soccer and are encouraged to exercise more after school.
“A big part of what the foundation is about is trying to give more kids the opportunity to play soccer that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity,” Woolcock said. “We wanted to make very good but very affordable soccer programming for our youth in Chattanooga.”
Chattanooga Football Club plays in the National Premier Soccer League, an all-amateur league comprised primarily of college players and international players. For coach Bill Elliott, recruiting players to CFC requires many of the same skills he uses at his off-season job as soccer coach at University of West Florida.
“The league and CFC especially attracts players with a Type A personality who are driven to get to the highest level that they can individually,“ said Elliott, who took over from Crossman and is in his seventh year coaching CFC. “From that aspect, it’s good working with players who have that mentality. You don’t always get those players in the college game.”
Assisting in the recruiting process is the devoted CFC fan base, better known as the Chattahooligans. The large and rowdy fans create an atmosphere unmatched in the NPSL, and makes the job of attracting players easier for CFC than for other teams in the league.
“Now that we have a history of such strong fan support, we can bring guys in and let them see the fans singing, chanting and playing instruments,” McDaniel said. “If you’re a young player looking for a team, it really seals the deal when they get in front of that fan base.”
BRINGING CHATTANOOGA TOGETHER
Chattanooga Football Club officials know that the success of CFC is directly tied to the fans. The club has consistently drawn crowds that have attracted attention across the country. The excitement and popularity generated by Chattanooga Football Club has led to visits to Chattanooga by the United States men’s and women’s national teams as well as CFC exhibition matches against professional clubs from Major League Soccer and international teams. The team opened the 2018 season with an exhibition match against MLS side FC Dallas.
“Here we are in 2018 looking back,” McDaniel said. “We’ve hosted national teams, MLS teams, Mexican teams, Liga MX team, we have a partnership with Wolfsburg FC in the Bundesliga (Germany’s top pro soccer league). You couldn’t have told us in 2009 that we would be relevant internationally. But that was always part of our vision.”
While there have been many exciting moments over the past decade, the highlight moment for Chattanooga Football Club came in 2015 when the club played host to the New York Cosmos in the national championship match of the National Premier Soccer League and came very close to selling out Finley Stadium. CFC’s run to the title game that summer drew larger and larger crowds for home matches, culminating with a massive crowd of more than 18,000 for the final against New York. Even in a losing effort, Chattanooga showed the world that it was a soccer city that could compete with any community in the nation.
“To see 18,000 people show up to support Chattanooga—and that’s why they were there—was amazing,” McDaniel said. “Those people came because this was uniquely Chattanooga on a national stage. I mean, I had no idea there were 18,000 people in this city who would come and watch soccer ever.
“It reminded me that they’re not here as much for soccer as they’re here because this is our city.”
For Brock, the large crowd that night was an important moment of healing for Chattanooga as the city recovered following the July 2015 terror shootings that resulted in the deaths of four Marines and a Navy seaman.
“We weren’t supposed to get that match; it was supposed to go to the higher-ranked team, which was the New York Cosmos,” Brock recalled. “We just basically pled our case (to the NPSL) and they got it and let us have it here.
“And then to see 18,000 people chanting ‘Chatta-Nooga’ across the field to each other was just amazing. I feel it was a moment where we grew up as a city, and it just made me so proud of where we live and what we are.”
As a decade of success comes to an end for the Chattanooga Football Club, the team looks ahead to a bright but somewhat uncertain future. Speculation of moving up to a higher professional league could foretell changes for the organization in the next few years.
When Chattanooga FC debuted in 2009, there was no Major League Soccer in the South outside of Florida. Now Atlanta United is preparing to start its second season, and Nashville recently announced that it will get an MLS expansion franchise.
“The fact that Chattanooga started the revival of soccer in the Southeast is the thing we’re most proud of,” McDaniel said. “We’re still a small or mid-sized market, and when you look at the number of fans per capita we’re at the top of the list in the country.
“The addition of the MLS franchise in Atlanta and the announcement of a franchise in Nashville, we’re thrilled and good for those cities. The more soccer is in the Southeast, the better it is for Chattanooga.”
As for Chattanooga’s future, McDaniel wants to ensure that the CFC brand keeps its eye on what has allowed the franchise and its other endeavors to thrive: the city of Chattanooga and CFC’s loyal fans.
“Right now, we’re trying to be sure we remember who we are and not disrupting that,” McDaniel said. “We have to take care of the fan base, and our fans are fans of Chattanooga—not just fans of CFC.
“We want to try to have more games over a longer period of time now. And we have to find the right league and environment to do that. So it’s not so much about moving up to another level as it is about how we offer more to build the image of the city over a longer period of time.”
And don’t be surprised if Chattanooga Football Club still has a few surprises left. At least one member of the CFC leadership has bigger dreams for Chattanooga’s hometown soccer team.
“I feel like we are known as a soccer city, and I’m one of those crazy people who thinks that we could get an MLS team here and fill Finley Stadium up every week,” Brock said. “We’re a city that likes to be about something and for something, and soccer is still growing in the United States.
“To me, we could be the Green Bay Packers, which is a great (National Football League) organization in a small market that defies all the odds. I’d love to go from where we are today straight to that.”
The big dreams of Krue Brock and the visionaries behind the Chattanooga Football Club came true once. Who’s to say lightning can’t strike twice?