Wiedmer: It's time to supersize our soccer success

Wiedmer: It's time to supersize our soccer success

August 23rd, 2015 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

USA's Lauren Holliday, right, stops the ball near Costa Rica's Wendy Acosta during the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team's match against Costa Rica at Finley Stadium on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The team is playing in Chattanooga as part of its Women's World Cup victory tour.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

With the rain and lightning finally easing Wednesday night, the U.S. Women's World Cup champs on their way to a runaway win over Costa Rica, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga soccer player Emily Moseley stood in the Finley Stadium press box and observed, "They're doing this on our field."

Our field. Our town. Our shiniest soccer moment. Ever.

Gallery: U.S. Women's National Soccer Team's match against Costa Rica

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more photos

That's what the past 22 days have been like in the Scenic City. Beginning with the Chattanooga Football Club's National Premier Soccer League semifinal win over Indiana before 9,236 at Finley, continuing through the 18,227 who witnessed the NPSL championship loss to New York, and reaching its zenith with Wednesday's 20,535 for the World Cuppers — the largest crowd ever to witness a stand-alone friendly in the Southeast — those 47,998 fans for three events have helped us become Soccer Central.

And the fun of filling Finley can continue this afternoon when Moseley and her teammates open their season against Austin Peay at 2 p.m.

Throw in the fact that UTC student-athletes from all sports will be signing autographs at the Chattanooga Market inside the First Tennessee Pavilion beginning at 11 a.m., and there's no reason not to stick around to watch the Mocs on the Finley pitch.

"Oh, I'd love to pack the house just like the CFC or the World Cup team," said first-year coach Gavin McKinney. "Admission is free for our games, and any time we can play on Sunday with the Market going on is good for us."

But what should we do next to keep this futbol fever alive in Chattanooga past this summer? Is this a fluke or a foundation? Have we finally crossed some imaginary line that now makes the world's most popular sport a major event in the Tennessee Valley, regardless of the level of competition?

"I've been in Tennessee since 2001, and the game is booming here right now," said McKinney, previously the coach at Cumberland University. "There are a ton of really good players being produced in Tennessee, both on a regional and national level."

At least partly because of that, CFC co-founder Tim Kelly believes the time has come for the community to elevate soccer's profile in the Scenic City to that of softball, which may have the best facilities in the country for a city its size.

"We've got a chance to cement Chattanooga as a great soccer town if we'll just commit the necessary resources to building the same kind of complex for soccer that we have for softball with the Summit," Kelly said Saturday morning. "It's the world's most accessible sport. All you need is a ball and a field."

Actually, to capitalize on the momentum of these past 22 days, our town needs a bunch of fields. All of them together in one place, and preferably surrounded by enough hotels and restaurants to bring in visitors from Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville and Birmingham, which are all somewhat equal distance from Chattanooga but also lack a singular facility that not only has an amazing athletic complex but also lodging and dining for several economic levels within walking distance of that complex.

Which is where my esteemed Times Free Press colleague Jay Greeson comes in. In his Thursday column this past week he threw out the excellent idea of turning the Wheland Foundry site off South Broad into a soccer complex with at least eight artificial turf fields.

Those fields could be used not only for soccer but also for lacrosse and youth football tournaments. And given how some NFL teams occasionally like to go off site for practice, it's not ridiculous to imagine both the Falcons and Titans meeting here for practices on those fields, and perhaps a scrimmage at Finley.

Throw in a couple of extra hotels and a couple of supervised playgrounds for the young tykes while their older brothers and sisters play soccer, lacrosse or football and it's almost perfect.

And if Wheland doesn't work out, there's also vacant land near Howard School that could be developed with the added plus of lifting the economic footprint in that area.

The possibilities are endless. But the time to make them happen may not be. No matter how strong the interest today, it could wane going forward without proper nurturing.

"If this community doesn't invest in soccer the way it has softball, it's missing the boat," said Paul Smith, executive director of Finley Stadium. "We have the opportunity to do as well, if not better, with soccer as we have softball."

If a soccer facility ultimately is built near Finley, Smith should run both sites. He and his crew of only a half-dozen full-time employees and interns couldn't have done a better job the last 22 days putting Finley's best foot forward through three huge soccer games, two nights of football jamborees, a UTC football practice or two and a Sale Creek High School football game this past Friday.

"To say this has been extremely taxing on my staff is an understatement," he said. "But you can also say after all of this that soccer is here to stay in Chattanooga."

Former Soddy-Daisy star and UTC redshirt junior Hannah Wyatt has been playing soccer in and around Chattanooga her whole life. Of the World Cup champs' appearance on Finley's pitch, she said, "It meant everything. Here were the best players in the world taking selfies in our locker room. Soccer has come so far here in just a few years."

How much bigger it gets is now in the hands of our city's power brokers. One fact they should seize upon is the survey the CFC does at the end of every season.

"We had over 1,300 responses this year," Kelly said. "And that's more than three times our previous high."

Whatever happens for the sport as a whole, UTC's McKinney is already seeing huge benefits for Mocs soccer.

"It's been great for us, especially from a recruiting standpoint," he said. "The way we see it, if this stadium was good enough for the World Cup champs to play in, it should be good enough for anyone."

And if we could eventually lure everyone in the Southeast who loves soccer to our town to play on eight to 10 other pitches as good as Finley, all the better.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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