The Chattanooga Football Club is in position for a winning season.
The Chattanooga Football Club’s men’s soccer team is about to enter its eighth year of competition. And thanks to a high number of favorable outcomes in previous years, the CFC enters 2016 having set a high standard.
There’s only one thing missing. It’s the elusive National Premier Soccer League championship.
The CFC competes in the Southeast Conference of the NPSL’s South Region. The club’s teams in 2010, ‘12, ‘14 and ‘15 advanced to national-championship matches, but each time they were runners-up.
Last year was the first time CFC played for the title at home at Finley Stadium. The result was a 3-2 loss to The New York Cosmos B club, which turned out to be the only team in the NPSL to finish unbeaten (15-0-1). The CFC ended its season 17-3-1.
Although this year the CFC’s ultimate goal will again be to try and win the NPSL championship, coach Bill Elliott says he doesn’t want the team’s focus right now to be on the long-term goal. There are other things along the way the team must try to achieve first.
“Our goal going into every season is simple,” Elliott says. “We want to be in position to host in the conference playoffs. That’s big for our fans. Being in position to host puts you in a better position to move on, especially given the passion of our fan base. We’ve been to three national championships in four years. You can’t get there by thinking about that from the beginning.”
Elliott says the CFC men’s 2016 roster will look a little different than last season’s. Among the new arrivals is forward Will Roberts, who scored more than 20 goals as a junior in 2015 for the University of Charleston on the way to earning a spot on the Conference Commissioner’s Association NCAA Division II All-America first team.
Roberts is expected to provide scoring help for returning striker Luke Winter, a decorated athlete who played at NAIA Tennessee Wesleyan College.
The coach says defender and new CFC member Danny Reynolds started every match as a freshman for Louisville last college season. He’s also the younger brother of Carl Reynolds, a former CFC midfielder who is returning to the team this year.
Elliott notes that several midfielders will be returning from last year. However, it’s the defense that will be featuring most of the new faces.
Greg Hartley returns at keeper and another mainstay, James Moore, returns at left back. During the college season Elliott is head coach at NCAA Division II member West Florida University and Moore is an assistant coach there.
“Our defense is going to have to be rebuilt,” Elliott adds. “Hopefully those two will be able to provide leadership for our newcomers.”
CFC General Manager Sean McDaniel believes some roster turnover is inevitable. Some athletes move on to bigger contracts. Some get older and retire. But success in previous seasons tends to continue to breed more success. At least that’s how it’s been in the recent past.
“Really we’re in a position now where we kind of reload,” McDaniel says. “I feel great about how 2016 is shaping up. Coach Elliott and his staff do a great job of identifying new players.”
In addition to earning a winning reputation on the field, the CFC is also recognized for having great fan support. With its most rabid fans, the Chattahooligans, as the foundation, the CFC drew a crowd of 18,227 for last year’s final.
“If you would’ve told me at that time some day there would be 18-19,000 fans at Finley Stadium to watch a soccer match,” Elliott says of the days when he played soccer locally at Hixson High School in the mid-to-late 1980s and was a member of a state-championship team, “I’d have thought you were crazy.”
CFC board members were unsure back in 2009 how well adult soccer would be received in Chattanooga. It didn’t help that it rained the day of the first match and ultimately there was a lightning delay. But those dark clouds had proverbial silver linings.
“We hoped 500 people would be there,” CFC co-founder and board director Tim Kelly says. “We had 1,600 that first game, even with a rain delay. We knew at that point we were on to something.”
The CFC will play a 10-match conference schedule this year, beginning May 14 at Birmingham. The Hammers are new to the league, as is the Memphis City FC.
The local club’s last regular-season match will be at Finley Stadium on July 2 against a familiar foe, the New Orleans Jesters. The Knoxville Force and Nashville FC are also returning conference members in 2016.
“We’ve got two new teams who we’re excited about playing,” Kelly says. “We also have some exhibitions we’re excited about but not quite ready to announce. This year will be more of the same, just bigger and better.”
Tickets to the home matches, as well as CFC merchandise, can be purchased online at chattanoogafc.com. One of the items for sale is a 2016 home jersey for $105 that also serves as a season pass. Another season-pass option is a wristband that sells for $49. Wear either to a home match and walk right in. Single-match tickets are $7 when ordered before the day of the match. Tickets are $9 at the gate.
Starting last year the CFC now offers a free application for mobile devices and can be downloaded at the Google Play and Apple Stores. It provides CFC match updates and other news and there’s also a way visitors to the app can collect points and have chances to win prizes. It’s just another way CFC officials try to provide for their fan base. At almost 4,000 per match a year ago, the CFC average attendance was highest among all NPSL teams.
“I think what we have to show is civic pride,” McDaniel says. “Playing soccer is just part of the whole atmosphere. There’s the chanting and singing during pregame. It’s about like a carnival atmosphere two hours before kickoff all the way to the match. It’s a great time on a Saturday night, and not just the match. It’s a place where a family can feel safe and secure and hopefully root us on to victory.
“We kickoff in May. We’re looking forward to a great season, and I think we’ll have it.”
Story by Kelley Smiddie
Photography by Ray Soldano