With the start of the USL League One season coming July 18, the Red Wolves' new coach also was adamant when he told his soccer team, "We are going to find ways to win points on the road!"
Despite winning away from home just twice in last year's inaugural schedule, the Red Wolves narrowly missed the four-team playoff, with their fate coming down to the last day of the regular season. They hope to start well this year as they prepare to hit the road to open a 20-game regular-season schedule that will be announced this week.
"The anticipated home opener is Aug. 1 pending final approval from USL League One," Red Wolves president and general manager Sean McDaniel said of what will be the first match at the team's new stadium in East Ridge. "It is also expected that we will be on the road in late July as we launch the season."
Veteran Irish-Libyan striker Eamon Zayed, who scored six goals in just 10 starts last year, believes the Red Wolves will jell better on the road, building on last year's 10-8-10 record — including 8-1-5 in home matches at Chattanooga Christian School's David Stanton Field — in the third tier of professional soccer in the United States. The 36-year-old said he feels good and is ready to add to his 217 professional career goals, a whopping 47 of which he scored from 2006 to 2008 in 71 matches for Drogheda United in the League of Ireland's first division.
"Sometimes it's difficult when you bring in a brand new group; you don't know how everyone is going to mesh," Zayed said. "Last season, I didn't feel as if we worked together on the pitch as a unit. Coach (Obleda) is very adamant that we play as a team and all go in the same direction.
"I think there will be more fluidity and team spirit when we play. We have a strong core group back and guys who have been around the block, like myself, Steven (Beattie), Ualefi dos Reis and Connor (Doyle). We also have some young and new dynamic players who we expect to mix with well."
The season's kickoff has been delayed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a return to action is something Chattanooga players and coaches have longed for. All of them will have to be tested weekly for the coronavirus and will wear masks off the field when they are not playing.
While the front line also returns Greg Hurst and Josue Soto, the Red Wolves will have to find ways to replace Sito Seoane (seven goals in 2019) who is now playing in Iceland. Left back Vangjel Zguro and right back Tony Walls are also gone, as is defender Richard Dixon.
Alex Mangels was one of the best goalkeepers in USL League One last season, while Beattie scored a team-high nine goals and was in the race for the league lead.
An exciting addition to the defense is Travis Nicklaw, a 26-year-old center back who has played for Guam's national team. The Southern California native caught Obleda's attention when this year's team was being put together.
"I am ready to prove myself and do whatever I can for my team in any way," said Nicklaw, a former San Diego State player who competed against former California Golden Bears keeper Mangels in college. "One of my biggest strengths is understanding the game and making sure our team is organized and put in position to be able to cut down any attack that comes our way. We are focused on the shutout every time we go out there."
Obleda challenged players Tuesday to fight to earn starting spots, many of which are still up for grabs. The Red Wolves, though, know everyone on the roster must be ready for every opportunity in a season that at one point seemed unlikely of happening and will obviously require extra dedication to health and safety.
"Mentally, we have to be strong," Nicklaw said. "When the opening match comes, the season is going to get off and running. You have to be ready and not scared to mess up. We are prepared to give it our all while all doing our best to follow guidelines and stay healthy."
Zayed made history with the first home goal last year, and he and his teammates hope to create even more and bring a winning streak into their first match off the edge of Interstate 75 at CHI Memorial Stadium in August.
"When I signed with the Red Wolves, I was looking for somewhere I could stick around for a while," Zayed said. "It's nice to be a part of something new and grow with it. I love living here. You find somewhere where you are happy, and you make a life out of it. I love the game, and we are all excited about this season."