It's go time for the Chattanooga Football Club.
Embarking on a new era of professional soccer in the National Independent Soccer Association, Chattanooga FC first-year head coach Peter Fuller wants his players to embrace the opportunity and count their blessings.
"The great thing I find about my job is I make my living off a kids' game," Fuller said. "I am the luckiest guy in the world, and it is a privilege to have the job I have. For all of us it is not a right but an honor to be here."
With 7,000 fans expected to be in attendance, CFC will wear a unique jersey against Oakland Roots SC in Saturday's 8:10 p.m. EST match in California.
Each player will wear a white jersey that has every name of CFC's nearly 3,300 supporter-owners in gray letters. Last January the club offered fans a chance to buy stock in it. The supporter ownership model raised nearly $900,000.
"To have everyone who bought a share into CFC last year on our first professional game jersey is a great tribute to the past of the club and to the present," Fuller said. "They can be a part of our first game in Oakland. Without them and our terrific board I don't think we would be where we are today."
CFC will play 14 regular-season NISA matches in what is considered tier three of United States professional soccer. The eight-team league also includes Detroit City, the Michigan Stars, California United, Stumptown Athletic, L.A. Force and San Diego 1904 FC.
The top three teams at the end of the regular season will advance to the playoffs with the California United Strikers, who qualified because of their fall-season West Championship win.
NISA operates identically to the FIFA calendar.
CFC's squad has a new look as only nine players return from last season. The team had 20 foreign players last year and now is allowed only seven after jumping from the amateur ranks to the NISA.
Fuller said his club will not field its strongest 11 right away, as injuries will force some key expected regulars out for the season opener.
"The key is to have fun and be brave," Fuller said. "We will have a few guys right out of college that will be in the starting lineup. There are going to be nerves. But if we buy in and play together, I think we will be fine and very competitive."
Six new players announced in the last few days were defenders Raymond Lee and Sean Reynolds; midfielders Kyle Carr, Alec McKinley and Nick Spielman; and forward Ryan Marcano. Spielman played in a few CFC nonconference games last year and previously played at East Tennessee State University, and McKinley and Marcano just finished standout college careers at Mobile and Oglethorpe, respectively.
Reynolds (29 years old), Lee (26) and Carr (25) all have professional experience. Carr played in 2019 for Lansing Ignite in USL League One. Reynolds, who played collegiately for CFC technical director Bill Elliott and most recently for the Saint Louis FC where CFC managing director Jeremy Alumbaugh came from, was on the Louisville City side that won the USL Cup in 2017.
Lee has played for multiple USL clubs but began his pro career as a draftee of the Philadelphia Union in MLS. He played college soccer for Saint Louis.