Chattanooga FC falls just short of NISA title shot with home loss to Michigan Stars

Staff photo by Patrick MacCoon / Chattanooga FC's Alex McGrath, bottom, picks up a yellow card in Sunday's NISA semifinal against the Michigan Stars at Finley Stadium.

As rain poured down Sunday night at Finley Stadium, heartbreak set in for the Chattanooga Football Club.

The team's season had just ended with a 1-0 loss to the Michigan Stars in a National Independent Soccer Association semifinal. Rod Underwood still put on the best smile he could as the first-year CFC coach clapped for the avid section of supporters known as the Chattahooligans, who turned out on a dreary day for weather and, ultimately, the home team.

"I am happy with my guys," Underwood said. "They worked hard, and we achieved some things that were really good this season. This game does not define our season, but we wanted to win something and tonight we fell short."

Both second-seeded CFC and the third-seeded Stars were given a sweet incentive when No. 4 Albion San Diego upset the No. 1 Cal United Strikers FC, 4-2, in the other NISA semifinal Saturday. Sunday's semifinalists knew the winner of their match at Finley would host the league title match next weekend.

Michigan came up with the lone goal in the 56th minute as Leon Maric headed the ball into the right side of the net off a corner kick. It was one of only two shots the entire match for the Stars, who will host San Diego at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Chattanooga had some good looks at the net in the first half, including forward Taylor Gray wreaking havoc down the left sideline. In the 26th minute, Gray fired a shot in between two oncoming, sliding Michigan defenders, and the ball was deflected by keeper Tatenda Mkuruva over the top of the goal. Gray also had another powerful kick in the 41st minute that was saved by Mkuruva, who starred in the match with three saves and several other impact plays.

Gray also had a cross from the top left portion of the box to the far post that Brett Jones almost knocked in, but a Michigan defender cleared the ball that sat just inches away from crossing the line in the 68th minute. Just seven minutes later, CFC was given a red card as Colin Stripling picked up his second yellow, leaving the hosts a man down.

CFC finished with nine shots on goal. Two of those came during stoppage time in the 96th minute after rookie Alex Jaimes sent a cross in from the right side of the box that set up shots for Franky Martinez and Markus Naglestad, the NISA's golden boot winner after leading the league with 19 goals in the regular season. Both were deflected away.

The home team's last free kick went close to the net but was secured by Mkuruva, who fell to the ground with emotion as the final whistles sounded after nine minutes of stoppage time.

CFC had gone 1-0-3 during the regular-season series against Michigan, with the win a 3-2 result in Detroit on Oct. 15. That had been the most recent match until Sunday for CFC, which received a bye in the playoffs, while the Stars were coming off a 2-0 win against the Syracuse Pulse in the first round nine days earlier.

The loss for CFC brought an end to its seven-game undefeated streak in league play that dated to Aug. 31. The club went 14-3-7 against NISA foes during the regular season, tied Cal United for the best goal differential at plus-23 and scored the most goals with 44.

"We are moving in the right direction. We accomplished a lot," Underwood said. "But this one hurts for our guys because they really wanted to win a championship."

Contact Patrick MacCoon at Follow him on Twitter @PMacCoon.