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Atlanta United vs Chattanooga FC: Scarves and Spikes Preview With Head Coach Rod Underwood

The Five Stripes return to where it all began

SOCCER: APR 20 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup - Chattanooga Football Club at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Chattanooga will always hold a special place in Atlanta United fan’s hearts. The Scenic City played host to the Five Stripe’s first ever match back in 2017, and who would’ve thought the scrimmage would set off a firestorm of success for Atlanta in its first three seasons.

How fitting it is they return.

Chattanooga FC will once again play hosts at Finley Stadium this Saturday at 3:00 P.M. as Atlanta United approaches their 7th season with a newfound positivity, along with a true sense of uncertainty. It’s only the third meeting in the club’s histories in addition to the aforementioned initial friendly and last year’s U.S. Open Cup match that the Five Stripes won 6-0.

Our Scarves and Spikes podcast had a busy Wednesday evening as they chatted with the AJC’s Doug Roberson about the variety of Atlanta preseason news and rumors currently making rounds. Prior to that, however, they sat down with Chattanooga’s head coach Rod Underwood to chat about the matchup, how he’s been evolving the team in his short time as gaffer, and what the matchup means to the two clubs.

“For us it’s a unique situation, we’re starting preseason pretty early,” Coach Underwood said about the date of the matchup. “Before we agreed to have the game, our preseason wasn't going to start until February 6th.”

This highlights the mutual respect the clubs share as two dynamic teams in their respective divisions of American soccer; Chattanooga FC is still actively signing a variety of players as they essentially report two weeks ahead of schedule to take advantage of an opportunity to test their mettle against an MLS squad. Underwood previously led the team to second in NISA last season (14-3-7), which qualified them for an automatic semi-final playoff berth. They narrowly lost that match 1-0 to eventual champions, Michigan Stars FC.

Both Atlanta United and Chattanooga FC are expected to field a mixture of first team players, backups, trialists, and potentially even academy players.

“You’ll see a very significant number of trialists...we’re a long ways away from getting our team done,” said Underwood. “This level is different, there are very few multi-year contracts.”

That’s a far cry from Atlanta United’s current situation, which has seen a significant amount of turnover since 2022’s tough season. Currently, Jackson Conway sits as the lone first-team striker on the roster who’s actually participating at the training ground, so Saturday could be a huge opportunity for him to make a mark in front of the coaching staff and fans as rumors loom about Greek striker Georgios Giakoumakis joining the Five Stripes “imminently” from Celtic. In fact, Saturday’s friendly has the potential to expose a handful of either new or lesser known faces to the fans of both clubs.

From an Atlanta perspective, it’s reasonable to think many of the first team guys like Luiz Araújo, Thiago Almada, Brooks Lennon, Juanjo Purata, Andrew Gutman, and others will see the pitch for a handful of minutes before stepping down in favor of some of the typical Atlanta United 2’s players like Erik Centeno, Nick Firmino, Ajani Fortune, Justin Garces, and Noah Cobb. This’ll also be a prime opportunity for newcomer goalkeepers Quentin Westberg and Clement Diop to show out in front of the 17’s.

But...World Cup winner Thiago Almada potentially making his post-tournament debut in Chattanooga, Tennessee? What a wonderful and wild sport we all love.

Chattanooga, for all the attention they’re still putting in to solidifying their own roster for 2023, will have a handful of workhorses either returning or being recently added.

“We signed goalkeeper of the year...Jean Antoine,” Underwood listed, “... and the golden boot winner is returning, Markus Naglestad.” Chattanooga’s coach also mentioned some USL 1 players, Joseph Perez and John Partida, and his face lit up as he spoke of midfielder/winger Alex McGrath.

“Alex McGrath has been with me...I brought him over from my other club Stumptown. He’s just been a star, he’s been a stud from day one.”

McGrath is a heavily involved midfielder who ended the 2022 season with 6 goals and 5 assists, though one many folks may remember is his first minute goal in the 2022 U.S. Open Cup against Memphis 901 which propelled them through the round to play Atlanta United.

From an Atlanta United fan perspective, it’s an opportunity to travel well and enjoy the game with a fellow rowdy group of supporters in the Chattahooligans.

“Soccer is probably the most powerful sport in the world to unify people,” mentioned Underwood. “You get a chance to talk to people and experience people you wouldn’t in your everyday walk of life if you weren’t involved in the game.” For their part, Finley Stadium and Chattanooga are a great opportunity to indulge in a hidden gem of southern culture if you plan on making the trip.

From a tactical perspective, keep an eye on the overall team movement, too, as much of the preseason focus has been on shoring up the defense. Expect the Five Stripes to continue their style of playing from the back, but look for plenty of off-ball movement to open passing lanes up the pitch. And if the team experiences turnovers, make a note of how quickly the entire squad retreats back to defend and pressure the ball back to their own feet. Meanwhile, Chattanooga will also be looking to implement their possession-based style which Coach Underwood stated wouldn't change no matter the opponent.

“It’s just who I am as a person. I love attractive, attacking football. I love to keep the ball. I love to press the ball, we love to just dominate possession,” said Underwood about playing his style against Atlanta United in the Open Cup last year. “You only get better by doing what you do, because what I know what we’re not going to do is, in the season, is we’re not going to sit back, we’re not going to let the other team have the ball, we’re not going to counter, so why do something we’re never going to do?”

For the tactical folks watching and making the trip north on I-75, the mindset and game plan behind Gonzalo Pineda and Rod Underwood will be an interesting nuance, especially considering the relative lack of preseason chemistry the respective teams have had time to develop. Regardless, Saturday will be an enjoyable day and great way to kick off the beautiful game in 2023 for both clubs.

At the time of this writing, the streaming option hasn’t been released yet, but the match will be aired on the radio on 92.9 The Game. Tommy, Sydney, and I (Tyler) will be back on the Twitter Spaces post-match show to chat just after the final whistle, and Scarves and Spikes will return Wednesday at 7 Eastern to catch you up on the latest news and previews for the rest of the preseason.

If you’re traveling to Chattanooga, come say howdy to me! And be sure to follow Scarves and Spikes at the links below: