Not having thousands of fans in the stands did not stop the Chattanooga Football Club from achieving success at Finley Stadium with a perfect summer sky to play under Saturday evening.
A strong connection was showcased on local television by Jose "Zeca" Ferraz and Brian Bement to take down the Georgia Revolution, 3-1, in the opener of the four-match NISA Independent Cup round-robin tournament. Fans were not allowed at the match due to COVID-19 precautions.
"It felt weird," said Zeca, who assisted two goals to Bement in CFC's professional NISA home opener. "It's been a long time. I had to dig in to find my shin guards today. It was good to get rolling again. With everything the city and country has been going through we thought about how soccer could be a positive message for everybody."
CFC controlled the tempo from the start as Alec McKinley sent a strong pass from the 40-yard line of the left sideline to Richard Dixon in the air. Dixon showcased his playmaking ability mid-flight and kicked ahead to the charging Ian McGrath, who outbattled his defender for the opening score in the sixth minute.
Dixon and McGrath's celebration was one many had longed for in a year when COVID-19 has canceled a lot of live sports. It was the first professional point scored in Tennessee since Tyus Jones of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies hit a free throw on March 10. CFC coach Peter Fuller raised his fist with pleasure after the beautiful early score, which was celebrated across the street at Chattanooga Brewing Company by fans who watched on The CW Chattanooga's TV broadcast.
"To be a part of that first goal is a great feeling," said Dixon, who played stellar on both ends of the field and showcased his speed from the right midfield position. "We have only been training fully for two weeks, and it was nice to get the three points. It's exciting to be back. We are truly grateful and can't wait to have full crowds at some point again."
After splitting its two matches against CFC last season, Georgia tied Saturday's game when Todd Fidler fired an uncontested shot to the upper left from distance for a goal in the 13th minute.
McKinley, who distributed the ball well in his CFC debut, made a gutsy slide tackle in the box to deny an attack in the 38th minute as both sides tried to put a scoring sequence together.
McGrath had two more solid chances to send the ball to the back of the net in the first half, but was wide left and high with power on each. He has scored in Chattanooga's only two matches of 2020. CFC made its pro debut with a 1-1 draw on the road against Oakland Roots SC on Feb. 29.
CFC turned to the veteran presence of eighth-year team member Zeca to help pull away as his connection with one of many new faces proved vital.
Chattanooga FC vs. Georgia Revolution
In the 41st minute, he connected down the right sideline with Bement, who flew past defenders to angle in a tough diagonal shot to the back left corner of the net for a 2-1 lead.
New goalkeeper Alec Redington turned away a dangerous free kick that was headed up right below the top crossbar that he swatted over the top of the goal in the 60th.
Ryan Marcano nearly set up Zeca for a beautiful score off a header with a great pass from the right corner in the 65th. However, Zeca soon after helped Bement find pay dirt off the counterattack as he headed the ball right ahead for Bement who from 25 yards away did the rest as he finished a bouncing right-footed shot past the outstretched keeper to the back right of the net.
"We trained Friday night later in the day, and the guys were buzzing," Bement said. "You could tell we were ready to go and get after a real opponent. Zeca and I have been playing and getting reps together. We feel comfortable and have been around the game for a while. It was great to finish and help us get the win."
CFC's Topher Marshall nearly finished an incredible 75-yard run and score in the final minutes, but the 3-1 margin held up as the final difference.
Cameron Woodfin also played well and created several chances in the first half.
Dixon said the team needs to get better with its defensive communication, which suffered at times during switches on the field. The versatile defender also hopes to see CFC put more dangerous shots on goal next Saturday, when CFC hosts the Savannah Clovers at 8 p.m. in what might be the last home match closed to the public.