Members of the Chattanooga Red Wolves SC organization wear caps that simply read "3 points," both as a focal point for each match — and the desired bump in the standings that comes with a victory — as well as a reminder of how close the team was to reaching the USL League One playoffs last year in its debut season.
Saturday evening in the opening of their new stadium in East Ridge, the Red Wolves took care of business.
A goal by Greg Hurst in the 53rd minute proved enough as Chattanooga's United Soccer League franchise held on to defeat Arizona's FC Tucson 1-0 in front of a socially distanced crowd at CHI Memorial Stadium — the first facility in the state of Tennessee designed specifically for a professional soccer team.
The Red Wolves (1-0-1) return to competition next Saturday to face North Texas SC in Arlington, then host Nebraska's Union Omaha at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 12.
It was also a special day for Jimmy Obleda, who earned his first win as a professional head coach after the Red Wolves played to a 2-2 draw a week earlier at South Georgia Tormenta FC in Statesboro. The win capped a day in which owner Bob Martino was able to stand at midfield in the venue — parts of which are still under construction — and thank the crowd for showing up and believing in his vision when he decided to build the stadium. At the same time, team president and general manager Sean McDaniel was able to stand in the background, pleased by what he had helped build with roster moves.
Saturday it all came together.
"You know, we've all taken a lot of roads," said Obleda, who was hired in November after a successful run as a youth soccer coach, most recently in California. "It's just like life, right? So many things, highs and lows and stuff and to get here and see everything that so many people put together: the Martino family, the McDaniel family, all the investment of everyone putting in the hard work and sacrifice. A lot of naysayers that said it would never happen and — it happened.
"It was a heck of a game, and the guys showed their heart. They showed everything, and the emotion of winning my first professional game and the emotion of just everything that went into this, it's a great feeling."
Hurst found a little bit of space on his score, wheeling to his right and firing a shot from the center box into the bottom left of the net.
The club was able to finish at that point, holding off Tucson and sealing it on an Alex Mangels save in stoppage time. Mangels turned away a total of three shots, none bigger than diving to his right to knock away a Joshua Coan penalty-kick attempt after the Red Wolves goalkeeper was called for a foul in the box.
It was a solid ending for a club that conceded a goal in stoppage time at South Georgia, the opener of a 16-game league regular season that wraps up in late October. After waiting months to play due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Red Wolves are in a rhythm with 14 more matches to prove themselves.
"This year, with a smaller schedule, it's definitely a sprint, not a marathon," Hurst said. "Last year we would have taken a point away from home in most grounds, and we were disappointed to only get a point last week. The boys here from last year have got a bit of a chip on their shoulder by not making the playoffs when it got down to the last day, and I think it's driving all the boys to make sure we're in the playoffs this year."