Ian McGrath has yet to play a match in front of a lively Finley Stadium, but the young midfielder/striker is already feeling the love around town in his first season with the Chattanooga Football Club.
Fans hope to be able to file into Finley to watch the NISA Independent Cup championship game on Aug. 1, when CFC will try to win what it hopes will be the first of many trophies as a professional team. CFC defended its home turf well against a Georgia opponent for a second straight weekend in the four-team event, beating Savannah Clovers FC 3-0 Saturday night minus fans in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic.
CFC returns to competition next Saturday at 6 p.m. against Soda City FC in Columbia, South Carolina. That will complete round-robin play, and Finley will host both the third-place match and the title contest the following weekend. Soda City, a 2-1 winner against Savannah on July 11, is second in the standings after playing Georgia Revolution FC to a 2-2 draw earlier Saturday evening.
"We want to win the cup, and I think by doing that it will get us flying for the rest of the year in the NISA summer and fall seasons," said McGrath, who turned 24 on Friday. "We have a great group of guys here who have different levels of experience and skill sets. I am excited to be here with a club that has such a tremendous support system. The support from the community, team and staff is unreal and really special."
McGrath scored the first goal in CFC's professional era on Feb. 29 against Oakland Roots SC in California, and he also slid in the 12th-year club's first home goal of the season off an acrobatic assist from Richard Dixon in a 3-1 victory over the Revolution last weekend. Against Savannah, he scorched a shot into the lower left corner from outside the box in the 15th minute for a 2-0 lead.
The Crestwood, Illinois, native grew up playing for the youth academy team of Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire, and he has experience in the USL Championship and the Scottish Championship professional league. He was just 5-foot-5 as a high school sophomore, but now he's 6-4 and a tough assignment for defenders with his ability to cover lots of real estate, create chances and score goals.
"Ian is a terrific player," CFC head coach Peter Fuller said of McGrath, who has nine goals in 33 pro appearances. "We are really fortunate to have him. He is a good teammate, a hard worker, and he gets what we are trying to do here. He is hungry, and I think there is still a lot of him that we are still going to see. The best is yet to come from him."
McGrath, who hopes to play for an MLS team someday, and his teammates have played well so far despite the National Independent Soccer Association being forced into a long layoff by the pandemic.
"Getting back out here playing is a fresh start for us all," McGrath said. "We had four months off, so we are getting back into our fitness, and I am starting to get my touches and sharpness back down. I have a strong work ethic, and so do my teammates. I think I can be a huge asset going forward even at higher levels. I am excited to see if I can get there, and I know Chattanooga will help me out with it."
CFC was without versatile standouts Richard Dixon and Juan Hernandez against Savannah as they nursed minor injuries, but the speedy duo of Kaleb Jackson and Ryan Marcano stepped up in their absence.
Jackson scored in the 52nd minute, and Marcano's creativity helped set up Brian Bement for his third goal in two matches.
"We are relying on Richard and Juan a lot to not only play well for us but also be great mentors and coaches in a sense," Fuller said. "Richard spent a lot of time with me and coach Jordan (Mattheiss) this week on how we approached and prepared for this game. Kaleb and Ryan get to step in and play even bigger roles. All of our guys have to be ready."
Fuller went into Saturday's match hoping to see CFC, which plays a 3-5-2 system, improve on corner kicks and defense, so the shutout was especially welcome.
"If you defend the right way and are in the right shape, it puts you in great positions to attack from," Fuller said. "If you end up chasing all over the place and taking bad starting positions, it puts you in lousy positions to start your attack from. We want to be in the best position possible to field success."