What to watch for as Chattanooga FC opens 15th season this weekend at home

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga FC's Alex McGrath, right, kicks the ball during a preseason exhibition against MLS club Atlanta United FC on Jan. 28 at Finley Stadium. CFC will be back at Finley on Saturday aternoon to open its 2023 league schedule against new NISA member Gold Star FC Detroit.

The 15th season in Chattanooga Football Club history has the potential to be one of the best yet.

A buzz surrounds the boys in blue, who led the National Independent Soccer Association in goals, average possession time and pass completion percentage last season. Chattanooga FC scoring three goals in the first half against Major League Soccer's Atlanta United FC in a preseason draw in late January only adds to the hype surrounding the 2023 squad led by Rod Underwood, whose first year in the Scenic City led to him being voted NISA's coach of the year last fall.

With the return of Markus Naglestad — he was selected as NISA's Golden Ball MVP after leading the league in goals last season with 19 — and the addition of goalkeeper Jean Antoine, who won NISA's Golden Glove, CFC looks like the early favorite to emerge as champion in the nine-team league.

Here are three things to watch for as CFC opens its regular season with Saturday's 3 p.m. match at Finley Stadium against Gold Star FC Detroit, which will make its NISA debut:

Let's get physical

After getting pushed around at home in last year's 1-0 semifinal loss to Michigan Stars FC, the eventual champion, CFC put an offseason emphasis on improving its physicality. One way the club addressed that was adding two towers in the 6-foot-3 Antoine and 6-4 defender Anatolie Prepelita

Antoine had 12 clean sheets in 16 matches last season for California United Strikers FC and allowed only five goals on his way to being named to NISA's Best XI first team. Antoine also had five saves as he helped lead Michigan to a 2-1 victory over Oakland Roots SC in the 2020 NISA fall championship game.

Prepelita, a member of Moldova's national team, was the man of the match on March 4 in CFC's 1-0 friendly victory over One Knoxville SC of USL League One.

"We wanted to make sure our physical profile was different in the back without changing what we do with the ball," said Underwood, who went 14-3-7 in his CFC debut season. "That's really hard at this level, because most of those guys are playing MLS or USL Championship. We found what we like and used analytics to really track down the guys who fit the profiles we were looking for."

CFC's new-look back line is expected to be a key factor in its championship pursuit.

Best from West

With Cal United on hiatus for the 2023 NISA season, CFC took advantage by adding five of the Strikers' players from last year's squad, which went 14-3-4 in the regular season to earn the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

Joining Antoine in Chattanooga are center back Aydan Bowers, defender Joseph Perez, midfielder Leonel Alvarenga and center midfielder/winger Luis Garcia Sosa.

Bowers averaged a full 90 minutes last season in 17 starts for Cal United's standout defense, while Alvarenga stood out with 88% passing accuracy while also adding a goal and two assists in 14 matches. Perez averaged 55 minutes at left back, while Garcia Sosa did not appear in a match but scored or assisted on six goals for Stumptown AC in 2021, when Underwood was that club's coach.

"We are bringing the best team in the East and the best team in the West from last season together and kind of combining them," Bowers said. "Iron sharpens iron. For several of us from Cal United to come to Chattanooga to play with some outstanding talents is very exciting."

Scoring power

CFC's offense should again be exciting with the return of Naglestad (20 goals overall, seven assists), Taylor Gray (eight goals) and Alex McGrath (six goals, five assists). All three made NISA's Best XI first team last season.

Damian Rodriguez, a former Dalton High School standout, certainly could help spur the attack after standing out with two assists in the 3-3 preseason draw with Atlanta United.

Contact Patrick MacCoon at pmaccoon@timesfreepress.com.