Sean McDaniel has experienced a good view of soccer's emergence in Chattanooga.
Originally from the Tampa, Florida, area, McDaniel's first look at the Scenic City was a bird's-eye view from on top of Lookout Mountain as a student and soccer player at Covenant College in the late 1980s. McDaniel later had a chance to see youth organizations such as Redoubt, the Signal Storm and the Greater Cleveland Soccer Association form and blossom in the mid-1990s, which coincided with the United States hosting the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 1994.
Locally and across the nation, girls' soccer really took off in 1999, when the U.S. hosted and won the Women's World Cup. From a competitive standpoint, the U.S. women winning — in dramatic fashion — their second of what is now four World Cups took the sport in this country from one that basically anyone with two feet could play to a pursuit that required immense skill and almost around-the-clock training to be successful.
The payoff of that boom has been evident for high school soccer teams in the Chattanooga area.
Since 1999, area girls' programs have a combined 13 Tennessee state titles, while boys' programs have combined for nine. Before then, area boys' and girls' programs had a combined nine championships.
Northwest Georgia has produced its share of success in boys' soccer, too. In Whitfield County, either Dalton, Northwest Whitfield or Southeast Whitfield has won a title in six of the past seven state tournaments. Four of those titles were won by Dalton, which also shared a state championship in 2003; the Catamounts are currently ranked No. 1 in GHSA Class AAAAAA and will host a state quarterfinal Wednesday. Southeast is the top-ranked team in AAAA and will host a quarterfinal the same day; Northwest was No. 2 in the classification but lost in the second round.
The next big event was the formation in 2009 of the Chattanooga Football Club, which quickly became one of the top amateur soccer organizations in the country. A decade later, professional soccer came to town with the creation of the Chattanooga Red Wolves, who began play in 2019 as part of USL League One. Chattanooga FC, which touts its grass roots history and fan ownership, joined the pro ranks last year with its migration to the newly formed National Independent Soccer Association.
Two pro soccer teams in a city the size of Chattanooga may not seem like a wise move — especially as battles wage internationally as well as on American soil between homegrown clubs such as CFC and privately owned and funded clubs such as the Red Wolves, two teams that could be viewed as rivals despite never having played one another — but one major positive from all of it has been the formation of youth academies, which have now branched out internationally and are bringing in players capable of playing NCAA Division I soccer.
When Baylor beat rival McCallie 2-0 on April 23, each team had an international player who has been part of the Red Wolves Academy and has committed to play for North Carolina: David Danquah (Baylor) and Giu Vivaldini (McCallie). The CFC Academy's alumni include former Dalton standout Omar Hernandez, who was the Gatorade national boys' socer player of the year in 2019 and just finished his sophomore season at Wake Forest.
"That's the direction that Chattanooga soccer is going in," Baylor coach Curtis Blair said. "All these kids have set a path for everyone else behind them, and that's the thing, is now Chattanooga has actually become a little bit of a hotbed. The academies have done really well, and a lot of those guys are going on to play (in college), so it's just something that opened the door.
"I think Omar really opened it up for the rest of us. For a David Danquah, for a Gui. It's a great opportunity for a lot of these players in Chattanooga that five, 10 years ago they didn't get."
McDaniel was CFC's general manager until 2018, when he moved to a similar role with the Red Wolves, but his view of Chattanooga's soccer scene goes back more than three decades, giving him a unique perspective on the game's expansion locally.
"I call it exponential growth," McDaniel said. "You saw that run from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, that was a long run-up. But the last seven to 10 years, maybe even shorter than that, that's when you see an incredible spike, and that's just a testimony to the Chattanooga population and the culture. It's just infused itself with soccer.
"... There's what used to be these great one-off moments where they sign a decent scholarship to play soccer, but now there's this expectation that happens at multiple levels every single year with the emergence, certainly of the Red Wolves Academy and being able to have a place for these kids to hone their craft with qualified coaches. We've got a stable model that now exists at a very, very high level in Chattanooga."
The Red Wolves are expected to have an almost fully functioning CHI Memorial Stadium with no attendance restrictions for the first time at some point this season. CFC recently reached the title match of the NISA Legends Cup tournament it hosted at Finley Stadium. In addition, the Red Wolves women will play this spring after missing last season — and be coached by Luke Winter, one of the most well-known names in CFC history — with the CFC women set to return to play in 2022.
And McDaniel doesn't expect the boom to stop anytime soon.
"I think what it took us 25 years to get to, we're going to see an even higher spike, particularly as the World Cup returns to the U.S. in 2026," he said. "We're going to see an increased passion and fervor for the game-day environment. The women's national team is still the best in the world, and so we're going to continue to build off that, and I think the women's professional game is going to explode.
"I think we're going to have not just professional paths for men, but I think we're on track to have professional paths for women as the sport continues to grow and grow quickly."