Friday evening was a special one for Chattanooga Football Club forward Chris Ochieng.
Why? Because he contributed.
The longest-tenured member of the National Premier Soccer League's second-ranked team helped create opportunities in the attack all match long -- one leading to an assist -- and the defense played extremely well in CFC's 2-0 win over third-ranked Miami United FC at Finley Stadium. That put the hosts in the NPSL South Region championship match tonight at 7:30.
CFC (11-2-2) will play sixth-ranked Tulsa Athletics, who rallied to defeat Upward Stars FC from Greenville, S.C., 4-2 in extra time in the late semifinal.
Injuries prevented Ochieng from playing in some previous key postseason matches, but Friday he started in place of Luke Winter -- serving a one-game suspension after being issued a red card in the Southeast Conference championship match against New Orleans -- and had some great opportunities early. Ochieng just missed on a shot in the fourth minute, then minutes later dropped a pass to Wil Linder, who took a shot that Miami keeper Peterson Occenat ranged far to his left to save.
Ochieng's continual pressure finally paid off in the 32nd minute. His initial attempt was saved by Occenat, but Ochieng controlled the ball and passed it off to Luis Trude, who scored for the one-goal edge.
"Miami was a good team, so we had to come in with a good mentality," Ochieng said. "We can't take anything from them -- we knew we had to play well to have a chance to win -- but playing in front of the 12th Man, we thought we'd have a chance to win and we're looking forward to tomorrow."
Miami (9-1-3), which won the NPSL's Sunshine Conference, created a number of opportunities. According to CFC defender James Moore, the visitors' movement in their attack was excellent and prevented CFC from being able to execute traps, which meant the communication between the midfielders and defenders had to be excellent.
"I thought the forwards worked extremely hard to close down the gap between them and the midfielders and back four," Moore said. "It's been second nature to us to work as a team and a unit, and we got the results we deserved because we found a way through it and managed to neutralize them and keep it to zero."
As the match started to get tighter in the second half, Miami started to lose its cool. The visitors were whistled for a number of fouls and yellow cards, and a red card on Ezequel Texiera caused them to play with only 10 players after the 61st minute.
CFC's depth, which has been one of its strongest areas all season, came up big late and helped lead to the final goal, when Jose Ferraz fed John "Snoopy" Davidson for his third goal in as many matches.
"We were able to go deep enough to control most of the good scoring chances in the game and stay organized," CFC coach Bill Elliott said. "It's a testament to the depth we have on this team. We knew Miami was a good team; we were stretched for parts of the match and were having to work hard because of their quality.
"We were confident that we'd be in the championship match, but we have a lot of respect for our opponents and the rest of the teams in the tournament, so I wouldn't say we expected to be there, but we thought if we went out and did the things we were capable of, we'd be there."
Moore said there would be no complacency due to yet another big win. Immediately after the match was over, the players signed autographs before heading up to the Finley press box to watch the Tulsa-Upward Stars match.
"A win's always nice, but if we lose tomorrow, celebrating tonight means nothing," Moore said. "Tonight's a nice feeling, but tomorrow's another round and whoever we play is going to be a top-quality team with the same goals and aspirations as us, so we can't rest on our laurels.
"We have to pick it up again tomorrow."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.