Damian Rodriguez experienced something completely different than he is used to at Finley Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The 20-year-old former Dalton High School soccer superstar was a decisive factor in a stunning 3-3 draw for the Chattanooga Football Club in a preseason match against Major League Soccer's Atlanta United FC.
In the 44th minute, he set up the equalizer and final goal of the exhibition, faking out defenders on the right sideline and speeding into the box, where he sent a pass through the legs of an incoming slide tackler to Alex McGrath for the score from close in.
That was Rodriguez's second assist of his 45-minute shift, which came against Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan, who has played for the United States in two World Cups.
"This truly was a great experience to play against Atlanta United," Rodriguez said. "I see them on TV all the time, and to actually be playing against them is crazy. They are so good, and every day I put in work so I can be at that level some day. For their fans to also recognize me after the game and want pictures and autographs was a surreal and amazing feeling."
Atlanta was down only one regular starter in the first half: Thiago Almada, who last month became the first active MLS player to make a World Cup final. Almada, 21, was called up to replace an injured player just before the start of the tournament in Qatar by Argentina, which went on to win the World Cup for the third time.
Chattanooga FC vs. Atlanta United on Jan. 28, 2023
Saturday's end result was special for CFC, which began as an amateur club in 2009 and switched to professional status in 2020. CFC, which currently competes in the third tier (MLS is the first tier) of the U.S. soccer league system as part of the National Independent Soccer Association, had been outscored a combined 13-1 in three previous meetings with Atlanta.
Fans spilled into Finley Stadium, where the 7,513 in attendance Saturday represented the seventh-largest crowd in CFC history and largest since the club lost 4-0 to Atlanta in a 2017 preseason match with 12,484 on hand.
"Our club is ambitious," second-year CFC coach Rod Underwood said. "Whenever we get the chance to host a team of this caliber, we want to put on a show for our city. This team did that today. I have been around a lot of professional clubs, but this one is one of the top three I have ever been a part of.
"Today was a great example of why Chattanooga is a special place for soccer."
While CFC fought toe to toe with a majority of Atlanta's starting 11 for the first half — both first units gave way to younger players in a scoreless second — Underwood and CFC players were hesitant to say their club is close to the same level as their opponent.
Atlanta won the MLS Cup in 2018, its second season, and was the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion in 2019.
Damian Rodriguez with the brilliant find to Alex McGrath for the equalizer. CFC is playing right with Atlanta United and has scored three times on Brad Guzman. 44’. 3-all. pic.twitter.com/HktaQugohK— Patrick MacCoon (@PMacCoon) January 28, 2023
"It's a hard question to answer whether or not we have players who could play at the MLS level they do," Underwood said. "The reality is, they have a very good team with high-level players. Some of them have played in the World Cup and on the biggest clubs in South America. So to put our guys in that environment every single day, I don't know if they would measure up to that.
"But I do believe because of what we do here, you could take any player and put them in any environment and they will grow. How far they will grow? That's not for me, but only God to know."
Still, the draw in the friendly could be an early glimpse into a dominant NISA season for CFC — which last year finished second in the regular-season standings and lost in the semifinals — especially if Rodriguez can build on his preseason performance when competition begins in March.
Rodriguez continually broke down the right side of Atlanta's defense and had assists to McGrath along with Markus Naglestad.
"I have worked my whole life to become a professional soccer player," Rodriguez said. "I love this game. I am not one of the biggest guys, but I think I am one of the quickest. When I am out there, I am just mentally into what's going on around me, and I just want to win and get better every day."
Naglestad shows no signs of slowing down either. NISA's golden boot winner with 20 goals last season, he scored the opening goal in the seventh minute and again in the 27th to tie the match at 2.
Atlanta got two goals Luiz Araújo and another from Machop Chol.
"Playing against a team with MLS superstars was awesome," Naglestad said. "I hope this brings a bigger following for our team. We hope having a display like today will bring a lot of people back.
"Who else at our level will have an opportunity to play a team like this? We have a great platform, and the way we are taken care of and treated at this level is unmatched."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at firstname.lastname@example.org.