The resurgent Chattanooga Football Club got the better end of a flurry of first-half goals and rolled to a 3-1 win over Asheville City SC on Saturday night at Finley Stadium.
The win was the sixth straight for CFC (6-1-1), which tightened its grip on the top spot in the National Premier Soccer League's Southeast Conference. The run is even more impressive considering Chattanooga stumbled out of the gate to open league play.
"What we did was come together," CFC coach Bill Elliott said of how his team bounced back from an 0-1-1 start to the NPSL slate. "We tweaked a few things with our rotation, but we really talked about our attitude. The takeaway for us was we've got to go out and work hard every game, and I think that's been at the heart of our success."
Working hard and responding to adversity were the keys to the match as the two teams traded goals during a frantic five-minute stretch of play early in the match in front of 2,804 fans.
CFC struck first in the 15th minute when team captain Juan Hernandez scored after Caleb Cole delivered the ball with a bicycle kick from the right of the goal. Hernandez took the pass, settled and delivered the strike for an early lead. Asheville City (4-3-2) answered quickly, though, and leveled the score three minutes later on a header by Ross Fitzpatrick that went past CFC goalkeeper Philip D'Amico.
The CFC response came just two minutes later when Alun Webb ran past Asheville's back line and lined a shot past keeper Pijus Petkevicius to give the home side a 2-1 lead.
"We felt a little bit knocked back (by the Asheville goal)," Webb said. "But that shows the character and spirit of this team that we were able to pick ourselves up and go back to the other end and take our chances when they come.
"That's credit to everyone on the team and credit to the coaches and the environment they create."
Elliott had his front line pushing the pace offensively throughout the match, and Chattanooga controlled most of the possession and scoring chances.
"The way they started the game, they were leaving some gaps that we felt like Caleb and Mason (Walsh) could go into and exploit, and they did," he said. "It was tiring and was hard work for them to play that way, but I think it caused a lot of problems for Asheville."
In the second half, CFC kept up the pressure to keep Asheville on its heels. That paid off in the 80th minute when Zeca Ferraz slid a crossing pass to second-half substitute Joao Costa, who scored CFC's third goal to seal the victory and extend the squad's winning streak.
"I think there was a little bit of tinkering with our shape at first," Webb said of the changes the team made to turn its season around. "Once we found a shape that worked for us, I think we've been really good. And it's also the attitude of the players working hard defensively."
Saturday's match was the last NPSL regular-season home match for CFC, which will take on Guatemalan pro side CSD Municipal in an exhibition match at Ridgeland High School at 6 p.m. Sunday.
Chattanooga will end the NPSL regular season with road matches at Inter Nashville FC and Greenville FC before opening the NPSL postseason as the host of the four-team Southeast playoffs July 12-13.
"We've got to rotate players and try to get rest when we can," Elliott said. "We've got to play four games in eight days a week before the playoffs. I don't think there's a coach in any sport that would like that scenario, but we're going to do our best to manage it."