If the Chattanooga Football Club wants to return to the National Premier Soccer League championship game in 2013, it will take a much different route than it did last season.
That's because the NPSL will look dramatically different this year. The league has grown steadily since 2008, the year before Chattanooga FC joined, and in the past few weeks it has announced a massive expansion, with nearly new 20 teams. There's even a Rock City Soccer Club, but it's not a local rival for CFC; it's in Little Rock, Ark.
"In 2008, we had 22 teams total in the league. Now we're at about 60," said Rocket City United majority owner and president Andy Zorovich, who also is chairman of the NPSL board of directors.
Eleven of the new teams will be based from Texas to Virginia to Florida. Zorovich said the South has been a little underrepresented in the NPSL in previous years. The Northeast conference had 14 teams last season, while the Southeast had eight.
"It was just a matter of time, I think, before we saw this big increase in the region," Zorovich said.
What all the growth means for CFC and the other teams in the Southeast conference is a change in how they get to the NPSL four-team playoff.
Last season, West division champion CFC beat East champ Georgia Revolution in the conference championship game to earn the Southeast 's bid to the final four. CFC, which lost in the NPSL title game, was joined in the final four by the champions of the Northeast, West and Midwest conferences.
The South conference will now be split into four divisions: East, West, Central and a fourth division that will be comprised mostly of the new Florida squads plus the two Atlanta teams.
The champions from each will meet in a final four to determine who gets to advance to the NPSL's overall playoff.
According to CFC general manager Sean McDaniel, the West division will retain CFC, the Knoxville Force, Rocket City and the Mississippi Storm. Joining them will be the New Orleans Jesters and the Gulf Coast Texans of Pensacola, Fla.
"I think what we're seeing is that the business model of the NPSL is much more obtainable than competing leagues," McDaniel said. "Where we hope to see it go next is U.S. Soccer officially recognizing the NPSL as the third or forth division in the country. We're already seeing hints of that because it looks like next month U.S. Soccer is going to approve the NPSL having seven teams in the U.S. Open Cup."
Two years ago, CFC had to win a round of qualifying to get into the Cup. It earned an automatic bid this year by winning the Southeast last season.
CFC coach Bill Elliott is the head coach at the University of West Florida, which is located in Pensacola. McDaniel said Elliott, a former Hixson High School standout, and the entire coaching staff will be back with CFC in 2013.
"He's very happy coming to Chattanooga in the summer, and I think CFC offers a lot of things that other teams can't," McDaniel said.
Coaching the Texans will be 2012 CFC midfielder Felipe Lawall, who lives in Pensacola and played for Elliott at West Florida.
CFC has played for the NPSL championship in two of the past three seasons.