Chattanooga FC opens the 2017 season in earnest on Wednesday, May 10 in Charlotte vs the Charlotte Eagles in the US Open Cup.
The US Open Cup (USOC) is especially interesting for fans of lower division soccer teams. It is a chance to see how your team directly compares with teams of other leagues and divisions of American soccer. Entrance into the CONCACAF Champions League and subsequently the Club World Cup remain distant but tantalizing dreams.
Chattanooga FC (CFC) has had some success in recent editions of the USOC. Twice defeating the Wilmington Hammerheads of the USL, wins against PDL sides Ocala Stampede and Reading United AC, and narrow 1 goal losses against professional sides Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL and the Harrisburg City Islanders of the USL give hope of a deep run in 2017. With a win May 10, CFC would advance into the 3rd round for the 4th straight year.
The Charlotte Eagles play in the South Atlantic division of the PDL in the 4th division of American soccer. Their squad is composed of mostly college players with professional ambitions. As recently as 2014, the Eagles were playing in the USL as a fully professional side. Their pro roots can be clearly seen in their immediate success and division wins in their first two years (15, 16) in the PDL.
CFC fans will recognize familiar face Humberto Pelaez, former GK for Memphis City FC, in goal for the Eagles. Fans may also recall that former CFC captain James Moore played for the Eagles in 2013 in the USL.
The Eagles have had multiple draftees in the MLS SuperDraft and a consistent pipeline to the pros since their reemergence as a PDL side. Their website indicates they are returning many key players, including their two most productive offensive players from 2016.
The PDL season gets started May 13 and players will be arriving in the days leading up to CFC's visit. Eagles' GM Andrew Pierce suggested on the Tornado Alley Soccer Podcast that they might have only one or two practices with the full team before kickoff on May 10.
Chattanooga fans should expect a very talented side and a tough match up. CFC will face similar challenges of player arrival times and limited practice plus having to travel to Charlotte.
All indicators point to an experienced squad for CFC's 2017 season. Returning 22 players from a 2016 campaign that culminated in a loss in the NPSL semi-finals, CFC will look to continue their quest for their that elusive first NPSL title (four time NPSL runner ups) and to make a deep run in the USOC. The winning team on May 10 will host the Charlotte Independence (USL) on May 17.
Notable 2017 roster additions include Leo De Smedt (F) and Chris Baker (GK), both of whom played for CFC in 2015 and the “2016 NAIA Men's Soccer National Player of the Year” Danny Whitehall (ST) from Hastings College in Nebraska.
In 2015 and 2016, CFC mostly played a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 with holding midfielder Matt Aldred (captain) remaining deep and allowing the other two midfielders to connect with the three attacking players. Looking at how CFC started against Atlanta United in February, and finished the year in 2016, we can realistically expect something similar to this on May 10:
*Roster can be found at https://www.chattanoogafc.com/team/.
Possible changes include De Smedt dropping back to LM in place of Perez and Whitehall or Goni coming in at striker to partner with Winter, which I think may be what we see as the preferred lineup by the end of 2017.
Eight of the players projected above started against Atlanta United in February and conceded only 2 goals in 45 minutes of soccer against Atlanta's starters and also created a handful of chances. While that doesn't guarantee success, it is nice to know a strong and experienced lineup could be played from the first whistle.
With potentially 4 games in the first 2 weeks, including back-to-back road trips to Charlotte and New Orleans, we should quickly get a good idea of what this CFC side is made of. Here's to hoping for a great start to 2017.
What do you think? Are you following the opening rounds of the USOC? Is Chattanooga FC on your radar this season? Comment below.