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Chattanooga's Leo De Smedt (7) moves the ball upfield. Chattanooga FC hosted the Miami Fusion in soccer playoff action at Finley Stadium Saturday night, July 18, 2015

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Chattanooga FC edges Miami Fusion 1-0 in South Region semifinal

An opera singer by trade, Caitlin Hammon Moore joyously performs the national anthem every chance she gets.

Yet never has she sung "The Star-Spangled Banner" with more emotion or within a more emotional setting than just before the start of the Chattanooga Football Club's 1-0 NPSL South Region semifinal win over the Miami Fusion FC on Saturday night at Finley Stadium.

"A lot more poignant after all that's gone here the last couple of days," Moore said after causing more than a few sets of eyes to water among the crowd of 6,143. "It was a little hard to sing. I definitely wasn't looking at the flag."

All that's gone on here the last few days.

Five American servicemen murdered by a sicko with a AK-47 rifle and way too much ammo to run through it. The glare of both the national and international media within an hour after Mohammad Youssel Abdulazeez fired his first shots into a military recruiting center on Lee Highway around 10:30 Thursday morning. The overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and rage as the news became official. The inspirational interfaith vigil at Olivet Baptist Church and others, bringing together Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, all of them mourning the loss of four Marines, and, two days later, U.S. Navy sailor Randall Smith. The New York Yankees pausing during their Saturday game to recognize Chattanooga's tragedy.

And the flag, oh, the flag, the Stars and Stripes flying at half-staff above Finley's west end zone, the ultimate symbol of loss.

Amid such pain and sorrow and anger, you wondered how meaningful a playoff soccer match could become. You wondered how Chattanooga, not always drawn to team sporting events in the best of times, would deal with this tragedy.

"Our first thought was, 'Is it safe?'" said Mike Lane, who arrived with his wife Bridget and 10-year-old daughter Mary Alice, who plays for the CFC Academy Elite 11-under team.

"But you can't let the terrorist interrupt our lives. We'd planned to be here, and here we are."

The most unlikely entity to be here? How about Al Jazeera, the Arabic television giant owned by the government of Qatar.

Said Tim Kelly, one of CFC's owners, regarding Al Jazeera's appearance: "They're all about reconciliation."

It's tough for any community to reconcile such madness and sadness in a little more than 48 hours. But our town certainly tried this warm and breezy night.

It started before the gates first opened at 6:30 p.m. for the 7:38 start. Having gotten the word out that CFC was selling 500 "#NOOGASTRONG" T-shirts at $15 a pop — with the proceeds going to the families who lost loved ones in the attacks at the two military centers — the crowd arrived early and with wallets wide open. Those 500 shirts were gone within 10 minutes, though CFC intends to have shirts available online starting Monday.

"We were the first people at the (south) gate," said Donna Tripp, who already had changed into her shirt by 6:45. "Those Marines were such a huge loss to our community. This is a wonderful thing to do for their families."

There has been no bigger family surrounding the CFC over the years than the Chattahooligans, the somewhat unruly, intensely loyal group of soccer fanatics who've been on board from the beginning, their numbers and fanaticism growing by the year.

Foremost among them may be Air Force veteran Donny Stiefel, who — along with his wife Shelly — designed the distinctive scarfs proclaiming "Lift Up Your Hearts" that have raised much money for the Wounded Warriors Project the past year.

Those scarves took on new meaning Saturday.

"The wonderful thing about this soccer team is that it brings people together from all different backgrounds, and that's never more important than right now," Stiefel said. "That's the great thing about soccer. It's a unifying sport."

The Scenic City never needed unity more than this weekend. It needed the Chattahooligans holding up signs proclaiming "Hooligans for Heroes" and placards thanking the Marines. It needed to see American flags waving throughout the crowd. It needed to hear the voice among the Chattahooligans that too few heard, the voice who said, "Love you, Dad," during a prayer for all who serve.

It certainly needed to hear Moore's stunning delivery of the anthem, which caused CFC general manager Sean McDaniel's wife Angela to proclaim afterward, "I'm kind of mad at Caitlin right now. She made me cry."

Crying can be good. So can crying together. And praying together. And cheering together.

Or as Chattanooga police officer MG Smith noted as he manned the south entrance gate prior to the match, "It's good to see people buying all those T-shirts to help those families. It's good to see this patriotism."

It's more than good to see that after all our town's been through the past three days, we didn't let a terrorist interrupt our lives so much as he may have unified them.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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