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Staff photo by Patrick MacCoon / Finley Stadium has hosted three Chattanooga Football Club matches this summer since the professional soccer team returned to competition, but fans were not allowed at any of them and might not be permitted when CFC plays its next home match on Aug. 29. In addition, this past Thursday the UTC football team's SoCon schedule was postponed from the fall, which means even fewer chances for the possibility of fans at Finley in 2020.

On Nov. 16, 2019, quarterback Nick Tiano's 12-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds remaining followed by kicker Victor Ulmo's extra point propelled the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to a thrilling 34-33 triumph over The Citadel at Finley Stadium.

The Southern Conference win was significant in that it was the sixth victory overall last year for the Mocs, who exceeded expectations in Rusty Wright's first season as head coach.

It has become even more meaningful nine months later, as it remains the last event with spectators to transpire inside Chattanooga's largest athletic venue and may be for the foreseeable future. The SoCon's decision Thursday to cancel league play in all fall sports due to continued coronavirus concerns was yet another blow in what has become a devastating year for the 20,412-seat facility built in 1997.

"There are tensions everywhere," Finley Stadium executive director Chris Thomas said. "Everyone has put their lives on hold for the last six months, and the prospect of another six months is overwhelming for most businesses. Our staff is anxious to figure out how we get on with life if we're looking at the possibility of multiple decades with this virus — we're just looking for answers, and it's a universal problem. It's not just us.

"These are scary times."

The SoCon left the door open for institutions to play a partial fall schedule outside the league, and UTC athletic director Mark Wharton said a trip to Western Kentucky and a home game against North Alabama have not been scratched from this year's slate. Wright earlier this month posted on Twitter that his team was willing to play anybody anywhere.

"We've got a long list of people wanting to play," Wharton said. "It all boils down to how we do testing. We'll make these decisions in a short period of time."

A complete cancellation of UTC's 2020 football season within the next few days would come as no surprise.

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ On a beautiful Saturday for football the The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs host The Citadel Bulldogs in Southern Conference football at Finley Stadium on November 16, 2019.

Chattanooga FC misses fans

These are not only scary times but frustrating times, especially in regards to the Chattanooga Football Club. CFC was just days away from its first home match as a professional team and a National Independent Soccer Association member when the COVID-19 outbreak began making a major impact on sports the night of March 11 with the pausing of the NBA, which led to the cancellations of the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments and postponed everything from the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball to the Kentucky Derby and the Masters.

CFC resumed its season July 11 in an empty Finley Stadium, and that emptiness remains as other soccer teams — including the Chattanooga Red Wolves at their new CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge — now compete in front of socially distanced audiences.

Will CFC be allowed to have fans attend again?

"It's a question I don't have an answer for," CFC coach Peter Fuller said. "It's in the hands of the politicians and the health people. I know we could safely put almost 5,000 people in Finley. Our managing director, Jeremy Alumbaugh, has put all sorts of stadium charts and graphs together.

"This is just very frustrating, and it's an economic hardship for the club. If anybody is capable of putting people in a stadium and have them socially distanced and do it the right way, it's us. There is no question about that."

Up next for CFC inside Finley Stadium is an Aug. 29 match against New Amsterdam FC, followed by a Sept. 12 match against the New York Cosmos.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Chattanooga Football Club fan Galen Riley, part of the Chattahooligans support group, stands atop a wall before the start of extra time during the team's National Premier Soccer League Southeast Conference final against the Atlanta Silverbacks on July 14, 2018, at Finley Stadium. CFC, which was founded in 2009, is in its first season as a professional team and National Independent Soccer Association member, but the club has not been able to have a home match with spectators present this year at Finley Stadium.

What's the plan?

The return of professional sports amid this pandemic has been largely successful. There have been undeniable MLB hiccups with COVID-19 flareups involving the Miami Marlins, the St. Louis Cardinals and on Saturday the Cincinnati Reds, but the NHL recently revealed no positive results for its players and personnel during the past three weeks among the whopping 18,514 coronavirus tests administered.

Major League Soccer has moved back to individual cities after restarting with its MLS is Back Tournament in Florida, with FC Dallas enabling Toyota Stadium in the Dallas suburb of Frisco to house 5,110 socially distanced fans for this past Wednesday's match against Nashville SC.

"CFC had a discussion with (Chattanooga) Mayor (Andy) Berke's office directly," Thomas said. "We were not involved in that discussion, but from the correspondence I've seen, Mayor Berke's office instructed CFC to not have fans at their games. That is definitely a topic we are trying to learn more about, and it's one of our agenda items for the board meeting on Tuesday.

"I know that (Hamilton County) Mayor (Jim) Coppinger and Mayor Berke have some disagreements, and we're trying to work with them on what the plan is moving forward."

Thomas said several high schools have inquired about the use of Finley for Friday night football games, giving him another reason to seek clarification on what restrictions still pertain to the stadium. He added that any such contracts with high schools would be on pause until the Stadium Corp. board of directors had a chance to decide on a course of action.

Salvaging has become the name of the game at this point of 2020 at Finley Stadium, as a socially distanced sporting event is preferable to no sporting event at all. Thomas said in late April, just six weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, that Finley would lose up to $40,000 monthly without events.

"Our schedule was basically 100% saturated from March through Thanksgiving," Thomas said. "Right when we were about to start, the rug got pulled out from under us. We keep hoping that the next month will be better, but it's just not happening."

Said Fuller: "I understand the health concerns, and I understand it's a serious illness for certain portions of our population. At the same time, I would love to see us put a game on with fans at Finley Stadium and do it safely."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:55 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, to correct the spelling of Andy Berke's last name.

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