Red Wolves need defense to be exceptional in USL League One playoffs

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Red Wolves defender Aaron Lombardi keeps the ball from going out of bounds during an April 2 match against Forward Madison at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge. The Red Wolves are home again Saturday night to face Union Omaha in the opening round of the USL League One playoffs.

Scoring has rarely been a problem for the Chattanooga Red Wolves this year.

In the recently completed USL League One regular season, their 52 goals trailed only Richmond (54), and they also were comparatively efficient with their attacks, converting on 18% percent of their shots for third in the league behind Richmond (22%) and Charlotte (19%).

The Red Wolves were sometimes guilty of bunching up their offensive success, having as many matches in which they scored three or more goals — it happened six times, including a 7-1 win against Charlotte in June to set a league record for single-game goals — as they did matches in which they were held scoreless. Relatively speaking, though, a goal was usually around the corner for Chattanooga, and that's a big reason why the team never panicked much if it had to play from behind.

But the postseason is a different animal in any sport, and it's highly unlikely the fourth-seeded Red Wolves (12-11-7) will be able to rely solely on that offensive prowess to carry them beyond their first-round playoff match against fifth-seeded Union Omaha (10-7-13), the 2021 league champion, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge.

No. 3 South Georgia (12-9-9) hosts No. 6 Charlotte (12-12-6) in the other first-rounder, with Saturday's winners hitting the road for next week's semifinals. In those Oct. 29 matches, regular-season champ Richmond (14-7-9) will face the lowest remaining seed and No. 2 Greenville (12-8-10) will take on the other first-round winner.

Postseason soccer typically features low-scoring affairs between evenly matched opponents, meaning any mistake can be costly — and magnified when there is no next week in which to bounce back. And while an offensive mistake may prevent a goal from being scored, a defensive one could lead to a goal that could be the difference.

The Red Wolves have five shutouts this year, tied for seventh in the 11-team league.

"The clean sheet is our first and foremost thought, and that's our goal every single game," Chattanooga defender Timmy Mehl said. "Obviously it doesn't play out like that every game, but we know if we get clean sheets and keep them to zero or one goal, we know we're going to get one or two goals, so it's just going to be a grind every game, and it's going to take a team effort to get on both sides, offensively and defensively."

It's even more important Saturday because Union Omaha also doesn't concede goals, having allowed a league-low 33 this year. Chattanooga ranked seventh with 39 surrendered.

The Red Wolves struggled in three regular-season meetings with Omaha this year, going 0-2-1 and scoring just twice. The all-time series record is deadlocked at 2-2-2 over three seasons of matches between the clubs, but the stakes are considerably higher this time around because it's their first postseason pairing.

Or, as Mehl said: "We feel like Omaha owes us one. We think we can stick to our game plan and beat them."

It's already been a tale of two seasons for the Red Wolves, whose head coach, Jimmy Obleda, was suspended by the league midway through the season and remains on leave from the club. They had a losing record at 6-8-4 when Obleda's suspension was announced in late July, but the leadership of the remaining staff — led by former Baylor and Chattanooga Christian coach Jimmy Weekley — and getting some players back from injury resulted in a strong enough run down the stretch to secure a home date in the playoffs.

Chattanooga used a total of 27 players in its starting lineups over the course of the season, with only eight earning at least 20 starts. Now, from the staff down to the players, the Red Wolves are comfortable about what to expect from each other as they try to push the club into the semifinals for the second year in a row.

It will start with solid play in the back and moving to taking advantage of opportunities up top.

"We play a certain style, and our guys play it well," Weekley said. "Sometimes that style is detrimental to us because sometimes you have to change your style during the course of the game, and we don't always do that. We don't adapt well sometimes, and it's something we've been trying to improve on.

"... We're excited about being in the playoffs, but at some point you've got to beat the best, and we get the defending champions in the first round. If you coach long enough, I guess you've got to beat everybody at some point to get there. It just happens that it needs to be right now."

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.