Chattanooga FC at Finley, Red Wolves travel in league semifinals this weekend

Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / The Chattanooga Football Club will try to build on a successful regular season when it hosts the Michigan Stars in an NISA semifinal at 5 p.m. Sunday at Finley Stadium.

For the first time in quite some time, it feels like the Chattanooga Football Club is back — and not just because the team is returning to action after an open weekend and playing its first match at Finley Stadium since Oct. 1.

After finishing the National Independent Soccer Association regular season with a 14-3-7 record, earning the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye for the playoffs, Chattanooga FC is set to host the third-seeded Michigan Stars at 5 p.m. Sunday in a league semifinal.

As for being back in terms of league title contention, it's true that CFC has been close since going from amateur to professional club two years ago, reaching NISA semifinals in September 2020 and June 2021, but those were part of truncated schedules affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This time feels different, with CFC proving itself over the course of the year and enjoying some impressive unbeaten stretches.

The club is currently on a 5-0-2 run — six league matches, plus a 4-1 win against MLS Next Pro member Charlotte in the most recent Finley appearance — as it seeks its first overall league championship, having reached the National Premier Soccer League final four times as an amateur organization.

CFC's first postseason test of 2022 is against a well-known opponent. Michigan, which finished the regular season 10-5-8 and opened the playoffs with a win over the No. 6 Syracuse Pulse last week, is facing CFC for the fourth time this year. CFC went 1-0-3 in the series, with the win a 3-2 result in Detroit on Oct. 15 to close the regular season after a trio of scoreless ties.

The other semifinal is Saturday night, with the top-seeded Cal United Strikers, who went 14-3-4 in the regular season, hosting No. 4 Albion San Diego, which went 9-6-5 and beat No. 5 Maryland in the first round.

The highest remaining seed will host the title match. If it's CFC, the final is at Finley on Sunday, Nov. 6. If CFC and Cal United both win, it will be held two days earlier in Irvine, California.

So a title is still two victories away for CFC, but even after a long year of soccer, the focus has been simple.

"You're just preparing, and the most important thing for the guys is that we've all been involved in sports long enough that these chances may never come again," said Rod Underwood, who was hired as head coach last December. "You want to enjoy it, do the best you can, don't come with any pressures in our play and do what you're capable of doing."

Another reason this team feels different is the fan effect. CFC, which launched in 2009, became nationally known among soccer enthusiasts for its devoted following, and it led the NISA in attendance in 2022. The club has proved entertaining with an offensive attack that netted an NISA-best 44 goals during the regular season as Markus Naglestad led the league in goals with 19 and Taylor Gray added six.

Amid the excitement, Underwood's calm has been able to keep the team grounded.

"That's something we've talked about from day one: Can we be the last team standing?" Underwood said. "Right now we're one of the last four standing; can we take the step this weekend to be the final team standing?

"All season our goal has always been about how we can do the best we can, have a generational impact and influence on the club, the city, no matter what we simply provide it and made it better for the city, make it better for the next fans that show up and excited for the next players that come in."

Red Wolves travel to Virginia

On the heels of last week's 1-0 win over Union Omaha in the opening round of the USL League One playoffs, the fourth-seeded Chattanooga Red Wolves will be in Virginia on Saturday to face the top-seeded Richmond Kickers in a 6 p.m. semifinal.

The Red Wolves went 1-1-1 against the Kickers in 2022, most recently playing to a 2-2 draw on Sept. 17 at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge. Chattanooga won 1-0 there in April but lost 3-0 at Richmond in June.

In the other semifinal, No. 3 South Georgia visits No. 2 Greenville in South Carolina at 7:30, and the championship match is set for Nov. 6.

USL League One announced its all-league selections this week, and Chattanooga had four honorees, with the first team including midfielder José Carrera-Garcia and defender Daniel Navarro and the second team including midfielder Moe Espinoza and defender Timmy Mehl.

Navarro was also announced as one of three finalists for two league-best awards (comeback player, defender), and Jimmy Weekley is a finalist for coach of the year. He has led the team since late July, when third-year head coach Jimmy Obleda was suspended by the league as it investigated allegations of misconduct. Obleda remains on administrative leave.

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.