As the landscape of professional soccer in the United States continues to change, the Chattanooga Football Club is ready to make the leap.
CFC, which has operated as an amateur team since launching in 2009, will begin play next March in the National Independent Soccer Association, which kicked off in late August.
"NISA is a great fit because its leaders understand clubs are more important than the league itself," CFC chairman Tim Kelly told the Times Free Press. "In a lot of other leagues like the NFL and MLS, the league tries to make itself more important than the teams and there is a lot of central control.
"When your league is composed of community-based teams, I think the teams tend to have more character. The idea is for us to help each other — having these teams in their respective communities innovate and then share their best practices from team to team."
NISA received sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation in February, a positive move that caught the eyes of several established teams in the National Premier Soccer League, including CFC. NISA is in American soccer's third tier, as is USL League One, which began play this year and includes the Chattanooga Red Wolves SC.
Currently NISA anticipates having 13 teams next spring, with CFC joined by other clubs making the transition from the NPSL — Atlanta SC, Detroit City FC, Michigan Stars FC and Miami FC — as well as California United Strikers FC, Los Angeles Force, Oakland Roots SC, Philadelphia Fury, San Diego 1904 FC, Stumptown Athletic, and clubs in Norwich, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island, for which details are still to come.
"The quality of soccer is going to be very high," Kelly said. "These teams are from bigger cities and that should be more interesting to local fans. It's also going to put more pressure on us to be competitive."
Fans in the Scenic City will get a sneak peek when CFC faces Stumptown Athletic at Finley Stadium in an exhibition Saturday night at 6. Stumptown hosted CFC last Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the teams played to a 2-2 draw.
CFC will finish play in the NPSL Members Cup by hosting the Milwaukee Torrent on Oct. 26. That is the last scheduled match of 2019 for Chattanooga.
"What teams are doing is buying a membership in the league, not buying a franchise," said John Prutch, the NISA commissioner who believes the league will have more than 20 teams in a couple of years.
"The owners and the clubs actually own the league. It's being attached to the community. Franchises move; clubs don't. What happens to that club and community is truly determined by the group that's backing them financially as well as the community itself and its support."
NISA will have a spring season from March through the end of June and a second season in the fall. The league is set up more like a European style of community club soccer more than it is the American style, as the league calender will be similar to FIFA's and promotion and relegation will be welcomed.
"There are a lot of fans and communities that love the idea of the underdog being able to climb up," Prutch said. "I think Chattanooga has an excellent shot at making the playoffs their first year in the league. At some point we will have a championship match at Finley Stadium and it will be packed."