Red Wolves found ‘rhythm’ even as challenges grew

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Red Wolves midfielder Rey Ortiz, right, controls the ball during a home match against Forward Madison FC on April 2.

Rey Ortiz said the Chattanooga Red Wolves never lost confidence.

Midway through a soccer schedule that stretches from early April to late October, things could have gone sideways for the Red Wolves, and there could have been any number of reasons why, from a three-game losing streak that had them out of the USL League One playoff picture to injuries that led to a lack of continuity on the field.

And then there was the league-issued suspension of head coach Jimmy Obleda, who has now missed six matches. The USL announced last Friday that it had completed its investigation of Obleda and found the suspension warranted due to "overly aggressive management tactics and insensitive language on multiple occasions," and he remains on administrative leave as the club completes its own investigation.

Ortiz, a midfielder in his second season with Chattanooga, said after practice Thursday that even as the challenges grew, the team "saw the bigger picture." The Red Wolves knew they were going through a slump, but they also knew they were getting healthy.

They have also gotten better when it comes to their results — and they're right back in the playoff picture, having accrued 15 points in their past seven matches and with a 3-0-3 mark since assistant Jimmy Weekley, a former Baylor and Chattanooga Christian School head coach, slid over to the top position in Obleda's absence.

"We wanted to get into a good rhythm before we hit the playoffs, because we believe once we get into the playoffs, we can really make a run for it," Ortiz said. "We've been staying positive, and I think every day people are willing to work to achieve a playoff run. We all have to be 100%, and I think that's what we're getting to."

General manager Sean McDaniel praised Weekley, goalkeepers coach Fabio Hernandez and manager of soccer operations Edwin Diaz for keeping the team on track. The Red Wolves are anything but a lock for the playoffs, but simply getting back in the mix despite turmoil swirling around the organization has been impressive.

After Thursday's practice, the message was conveyed to players that the "job isn't done," but to this point it's been a job well done.

"The guys have been great with me," Weekley said. "They've responded to me well. We have an open line of communication: They ask questions, and I give them my answer. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don't. I think that has helped a lot, just telling them where they stand in my mind, what they need to improve on, or why they're in the 18 or out of the 18 (travel roster), why they're in the 11 or not in the 11 (starting lineup), whether they play or don't play.

"I think that's one piece of this really, just having that one-on-one conversation."

Health has been a big factor, too. Defender Danny Navarro has returned from injury, as has midfielder Ualefi. Sebastian Capozucchi is working his way back, while David Texeira trained for the first time in a while on Thursday. Weekley also pointed to the leadership of team members such as Navarro and Jose Carrera-Garcia — players who have been around the league for a while — for the improvements.

Chattanooga is 9-8-5 in league play, with its 32 points ranking fourth in the 11-team standings. The Red Wolves are six points behind first-place Greenville (11-6-5) — the league leaders lost 5-1 at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge earlier this month — which is followed by Richmond (10-7-5, 35 points) and Omaha (8-2-10, 34).

However, Madison (7-5-10) is just one point behind Chattanooga, and sixth-place Charlotte (8-8-5) is another two points back. The Red Wolves have eight matches remaining in the regular season, with six of those on the road, including Saturday's match against Charlotte.

Getting to the playoffs won't be easy, but the potential path might have been a lot more difficult right now if not for the Red Wolves pushing through their challenges. Ortiz would encourage observers to look even further back.

"I think this has been a long time coming," he said. "I don't think this recent run has anything to do with what's been going on, I just think it had everything to do with the rhythm that we kind of weren't able to get in. So now that we've got the rhythm, we can show what we can do -- especially now that we've got some people back healthy.

"We had a lot of strong pieces that were unhealthy, so now that they're healthy, we can really make a playoff push."

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.