The Chattanooga Football Club passed an early test for the pandemic-interrupted National Independent Soccer Association season with flying colors over the past few weeks, earning the first championship trophy of the team's professional era in dominant fashion.
Now the boys in blue are excited to enter a new realm as the NISA fall schedule kicks off this week.
Chattanooga FC clinched a NISA Independent Cup title Saturday night at Finley Stadium, completing the Southeast Region's round robin with a 3-0 win against Soda City FC of Columbia, South Carolina.
The opposition is expected to be much tougher and the margin for error much slimmer as CFC opens its fall schedule with back-to-back matches in the Detroit area, facing the Michigan Stars FC at 7 p.m. Saturday at Ultimate Soccer Arenas Outdoor Stadium in Pontiac and Detroit City FC at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 15 at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck.
Although CFC outscored its opponents 9-1 and went 3-0 in the NISA Independent Cup - while playing all matches at home, although without fans in the stands due to coronavirus precautions - the club's first-year head coach obviously looks deeper than the standings or the scoreboard.
"We have had some giveaways in the middle third of the field where we have to be smarter with the ball," said Peter Fuller, the former CFC associate head coach who was promoted this past December. "Especially now because we are playing against other professional clubs. We can't give the ball away where we are, because if we do, we won't be able to defend it."
For the most part, however, Fuller has been happy with what he has seen from a revamped roster - especially considering that, after just one late February match in the 12-year-old team's first pro season, NISA shut down for months due to the pandemic before returning to competition in July with Independent Cup play.
CFC has looked sharp this summer, especially soon after the first whistle has sounded. Five of the team's nine goals during the Independent Cup happened in the opening 15 minutes of play. Savvy midfielder Juan Hernandez set up two scores in the first seven minutes of Saturday's match, and the veteran player's ability to facilitate and distribute could go a long way, especially for a different style of attack - compared to past CFC teams - in which newcomers Brian Bement and Ian McGrath have thrived with four goals apiece.
"Everybody has seen Juan do what he did tonight for a long time. And longer than I have," Fuller said after Saturday's win. "He is a terrific player and a great passer of the ball."
Playing a 3-5-2 set, CFC showed off its speed and experience, pressing extremely hard in the opening 20 minutes and dictating the flow of the game.
Right wingback Richard Dixon, a player-coach, has looked sharp in his two matches with CFC. He has been able to make high-caliber plays down the sideline to help set up scoring opportunities, but he also has the quickness to get back and play standout defense. He and the ultra shifty Cameron Woodfin have played higher up the field on opposite sidelines and are counted on to help with crosses.
"We are creating a lot of chances," said Fuller, whose club finished Saturday's match with a 14-2 advantage in shots. "Bement and McGrath have both provided a spark, and I think we will become even better at finishing going forward. We have been learning how to defend and play in a new shape. I think our guys will finish some of the shots we haven't going forward."
CFC's matches in Michigan will be followed by home dates against New Amsterdam FC on Aug. 29 and the New York Cosmos on Sept. 12, with both kickoffs at 7:30 p.m., to complete the Eastern Conference regular season and set up the NISA postseason tournament that will be held at a single site.
The scoring chances may not be as frequent now as the opposing talent level increases, as does the likelihood teams may decide to sit on the ball a little more and load the box against CFC's attack.
However, Fuller is excited about a weapon he can deploy in reserve when a late goal is needed.
Kaleb Jackson has provided exceptional speed and scored in two straight matches. Jackson got free downfield and scored after a fantastic through ball delivered by David Koloko to wrap up Saturday's scoring, and he provides another offensive option beyond Bement, McGrath and Jose "Zeca" Ferraz.
"We are certainly looking strong in the middle with Zeca, McGrath and Bement," Fuller said about the attacking end. "But I would also say Kaleb is a big impact player for us, too. He is more effective coming in off the bench than starting right now.
"He is coming into a game where some defenders have been playing for 45 minutes to an hour. Then you bring in his pace and his relentlessness in terms of his work. He is out there fighting for the ball and competing every second. It's a handful for a defender later in the game."