The Chattanooga Football Club is taking a major step forward.
On Tuesday, the 15th year independent soccer club was announced as the 29th team to join MLS NEXT Pro — a professional men's soccer league that was launched by Major League Soccer in 2022. The league is classified as part of the third tier of the United States soccer league system and completes the pro player pathway from MLS NEXT and youth Academies to MLS first teams.
"This club has not only survived but thrived, grown and built over the last 15 years," Chattanooga FC CEO Alton Byrd said. "Chattanooga FC has created a really good model for sustainability in sports. Not growing too fast, working together with the community and joining MLS will enhance it. The club deserves to be playing in the big leagues under the MLS structure. This is the best level of soccer in this country. We will be one of the developmental groups that help develop talent across the board while keeping our independence."
CFC's move to MLS NEXT Pro will coincide with a $1.8 million renovation at Finley Stadium to include a new luxury stadium club experience, new LED field lights and elevator modernization, replacing the current elevators which were installed more than 25 years ago.
This is in addition to more than $300,00 invested in skybox audio/video upgrades, food and beverage renovations and general equipment replacements in 2023. Also the Stadium Club on the concourse level, where the CFC merchandise shop is located, will be renovated and renamed the 'Ultra Club' with Michelob Ultra owning the naming rights.
Chattanooga FC will begin play in MLS NEXT Pro in March of 2023 with 28-regular season games to be followed by a 14-team playoff tournament. The league does not feature a salary cap and player contracts are held by the teams and not by the league. The league recently formed a partnership with Apple TV to carry most of all its games on MLS League Pass.
"MLS has made some big headlines lately with their deal with Apple TV and getting Lionel Messi," said Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, who is one of CFC's eight founders. "This is very clearly the best resource and managed league in the United States. MLS NEXT Pro is a great thing for the club to be a part of. This will help gain traction in all the other community enterprises the club is based in. From the start, our focus has always been about bringing people together in our great city."
All upgrades will begin after the BlueCross Bowl — which will be played Nov. 30 through Dec. 2 — and will be completed over the course of 2024.
The move to a new third-tier of professional soccer comes after CFC dominated by winning 29 games over the last two seasons as a member of the National Independent Soccer Association, which they were a part of from 2020-23. Chattanooga won the NISA League Cup this year as the regular season champions set a club record with a 15-win season.
In league play, Chattanooga FC has 115 wins, 35 losses and 43 draws over the course of its history. The club was a National Premier Soccer League runner-up four times, a Southeast Conference champion eight times and won a trio of South Region championships along with the Hank Steinbrecher Cup in 2015.
CFC became the first soccer club in the country to offer fan ownership in 2019, which raised $872,750 from 3,256 shareholders from all 50 states and over 30 different countries.
"CFC has such a strong connection to the community and plays an important role in it as well," MLS NEXT Pro President Charles Altchek said. "To say that the club is not just about soccer would be totally understating it. The club's story is remarkable and a beautiful story. They have impacted the community and brought new folks to the sport that want to be a part of the game. Whether it is through the CFC Academy, through their community impact initiatives or the women's team, there are so many things happening with the club that speak to what CFC is all about."
The move to MLS NEXT Pro will be a step up in play for Chattanooga FC, whose roster will look significantly different next season.
Since the league's inaugural 2022 season, there have been 62 players in MLSNP who have gone on to sign first team MLS contracts. Twenty-seven MLSNP players have national team duties while 11 were invited to the US Olympic men's team training camp this October in preparation of the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.
Of the 29 teams headed into the 2024 campaign, currently 27 of those are affiliated with a MLS team except for CFC and Carolina Core FC.
"MLS NEXT Pro was the best choice for our club, players, fans, staff, community and Chattanooga," CFC primary owner Davis Grizzard said. "Our fans trust us to make the best decision for the longevity of the club. Our purpose remains building community through the world's game and we are excited to do that alongside MLS NEXT Pro."
Chattanooga FC will play under new rules in the 2024 season as regular season MLSNP matches can not end in a draw, instead they go straight to penalty kick shootouts. Each team gets one point for the draw, while the shootout winner gets an additional point.
MLS NEXT Pro's playoff format differs from most leagues, as the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the Eastern and Western Conference get to choose their opponent from the No. 4-7 seeds. The No. 1 seeds in each conference receive a first round bye and get to select their opponents from the two lowest seeds remaining in their conference after the quarterfinals.
The first two playoff championships were won by Columbus Crew 2 and Austin FC II, with both title matches drawing 7,500 fans.
"A big part of our plan is bringing in really great independent teams and Chattanooga FC is obviously a key part of that," Altchek said. "Our league could grow to between 40-60 teams in the next number of years. We feel really good about where we are and are excited to have CFC on board."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at email@example.com.