As the Chattanooga Red Wolves soccer club warmed up minutes before its first-ever game at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge Aug. 1, the brand-new stadium's PA system cranked out an old Elvis Presley hit: "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You."
The 1961 ballad was an odd musical choice for a sport that typically embraces upbeat world music and appeals to a younger audience. But perhaps the song was a plea for fans. The Red Wolves, who play in the League One division of the United Soccer League, need the people of Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia to fall in love with the team.
Chattanooga, as most people know by now, has two professional soccer teams: the Red Wolves, an upstart crew which came to town last year and played at Chattanooga Christian High School off Broad Street while awaiting construction of the team's new soccer-specific stadium; and Chattanooga FC, a successful and beloved community-based team that made the leap to the professional National Independent Soccer Association league this year. Chattanooga FC plays its games at expansive 20,412-seat Finley Stadium, a mixed-use stadium on Chattanooga's south side which the club shares with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs football team.
The Red Wolves, meanwhile, are breaking in their half-finished stadium on a plot of previously forested land off Mack Smith Road near Parkridge East Hospital. Eventually, the 5,500-seat stadium will become the centerpiece of a suburban residential and retail center, the vision of Red Wolves owner Robert Martino, a successful developer. Martino's vision for the complex includes restaurants, shops and apartments in the orbit of the stadium, and indeed you can begin to see the plans unfold in grading work that's happening in adjacent acres.
Opening a new stadium — CHI Memorial Stadium is the first soccer-specific stadium for a professional team in Tennessee — is dicey in good times. Throw in a worldwide pandemic and it's a complete crap shoot. (Disclosure: I am a season ticket holder.)
Attending the first game at CHI Memorial Stadium was a bit like moving into a new home before the kitchen is completed. It's a lovely setting nestled in a grove of trees near the intersection of I-24 and I-75. At the time of my visit, the stadium consisted of the reserved seating area and the supporters' section behind the north goal. Bleachers to complete the horseshoe-shaped stadium will go up later, along with planned sky boxes and an in-stadium restaurant. There is a lovely grassy hill at the south (open) end of the stadium with a giant flagpole which appears poised to become a gathering spot for members of the Red Wolves youth academy soccer teams.
If you squint your eyes and imagine a finished CHI Memorial Stadium, its hallmarks will be an immaculate field surface, a tree-lined horizon that seems away from the bustle of the city, plus professional-level staffing and amenities on and off the field. Geographically, it's positioned strategically to draw fans from Cleveland, Tennessee, and Dalton, Georgia, both of which are an easy 20-minute drive away, as well as Chattanooga soccer fans.
Because of state COVID-19 guidelines capping attendance at 25% of stadium capacity for now, game No. 1 at the stadium involved social distancing as even season ticket holders were spread out to newly assigned seats. Mask-wearing is encouraged but not mandatory.
All of this takes away some crowd energy, but it was completely warranted to maintain public health. Besides, it was just good to be back outside watching an organized sport again.
It didn't hurt that the Red Wolves prevailed over Tuscon (Arizona) FC in the inaugural game 1-0 on a goal by Red Wolves team member Greg Hurst. Fielding a consistent winning team will be part of the success formula for the Red Wolves franchise, of course.
Next year will be the real test for the club, when the new facilities are more complete and the need for social distancing (perhaps) abates. By then, Chattanooga's professional soccer scene might be, as Elvis sings, "All Shook Up."
Welcome to CHI Memorial Stadium
Capacity: 5,500 (when complete)
Team: Chattanooga Red Wolves
Location: Off Mack Smith Road in East Ridge
Ticket prices: Single game tickets $12-$32
On-site parking: $10 per vehicle
Temporary COVID-19 rules: Attendance capped at 25% of capacity, social distancing enforced, masks encouraged
Food/concessions: Assorted food trucks
Beer sales: Yes
Remaining regular season home games: Sept. 12, 19; Oct. 7, 17