The Chattanooga Football Club is finally set to take to the friendly confines of Finley Stadium, albeit with a completely different surrounding.
The cheers from the loyal Chattahooligans might still be heard, but they would have to come from outside the 20,000-plus-seat stadium as the team begins competing for an inaugural NISA Independent Cup title. Due to COVID-19 precautions, there will be no fans allowed inside Finley Stadium for the first two weekends of the round-robin tournament that will kick off Saturday, July 11, and finish with championship and third-place matches on Aug. 1 in Chattanooga.
"What I have learned the most through COVID-19 and sports being canceled or delayed, is how important supporters and fans are," CFC head coach Peter Fuller said. "Because even on the TV, I don't care how much crowd noise they pipe in or anything else, it's not the same. The intimidation factor is gone for away teams, and that's a big element of the game.
"The 'Hooligans are trying to find ways to get around the outside of the stadium and all of that so they can still support us. They are the club. We are a small piece. We are the front porch to the house and the most visible. But our fans, owners and supporters are the lifeblood of this club and one of the reasons why we have been able to make it through this pandemic and work stoppage."
In preparation for the 8 p.m. match a week from Saturday against former National Premier Soccer League foe Georgia Revolution, CFC just returned to full-contact practice Monday. Over the past four weeks, the National Independent Soccer Association club practiced social distancing in its practices after being away from workouts altogether for nearly three months.
The NISA Independent Cup will bring together clubs from NISA and established amateur leagues in a regional format. CFC will also play the Savannah Clovers and Soda City FC ,who represent the United Premier Soccer League and will play in the Southeast region.
CFC will host Savannah at 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 18, with no fans allowed. However, the last two match dates could possibly allow fans in the crowd — on July 25, when CFC travels to Columbia, South Carolina, to take on Soda City FC at 6 p.m.
Other regions included in the NISA Independent Cup are Central Plains, Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic.
Fuller has seen his players get after it right away in practice this week.
"There's been a lot of pent-up energy," Fuller said. "Practice has been real disjointed and physical, but we will make strides. Over the past four weeks there were a lot of attacking themes we were able to work on, and I feel pretty good about some of that. However, we have struggled in defending. We are going to have a session on that tomorrow and work on the system we are trying to play. We won't be perfect July 11, but I do want to get a result. It's just exciting to be playing a competitive match again."
CFC, now in its first year as a professional team, went out strong in its last season of NPSL play. The grassroots organization, which became one of the most accomplished amateur soccer clubs in the country, won its eighth Southeast Conference title last July 13 in dominant fashion and finished 7-2-1.
The NISA Independent Cup does have a championship on the line, and clubs are looking to attack it as a good building block on their way to beginning the first NISA regular season later this fall.
"We want to win the trophy," Fuller said. "It feels wonderful to get back to playing soccer. Our patience and our minds have been tried. We made it through though, and we are excited to play in this tournament and then jump into NISA play soon after."