With the Chattanooga Football Club preparing to play for a professional title for the first time, the 12-year-old soccer team's new head coach is grateful to have a roster full of fiery competitors.
During a five-hour weather delay last Saturday while waiting to take on host Soda City FC, Chattanooga FC players found ways to keep it lively despite what ended up being a washed-out weekend in Columbia, South Carolina.
"All of these guys here are elite-level athletes," said Peter Fuller, the club's former associate head coach who was promoted last December as former head coach Bill Elliott became CFC's technical director.
"You should have seen some of the games they were making up during the rain delay," Fuller added. "They were hooting and hollering, trying to chip balls into a bucket and seeing who could toss the coin closest to the wall. To compete at this level, it's almost a prerequisite to be ultra competitive, and these guys are."
Fuller is counting on that inner drive to help fuel CFC as it hosts Soda City at 8 p.m. Saturday at Finley Stadium in a winner-take-all match for the NISA Independent Cup championship. Two clubs from the Peach State will meet in the Southeast Region's other match at 5 p.m. as Georgia Revolution FC and Savannah Clovers FC face off at Finley.
Soda City hosted what was supposed to be the third and final day of round-robin competition for the return-to-play tournament ahead of the National Independent Soccer Association resuming its regular season with a summer/fall schedule. However, last Saturday's Georgia-Savannah match was suspended with the score 1-1 at halftime, and CFC and Soda City wound up not playing at all.
NISA and representatives from the four clubs later decided to reschedule both matches for Finley — which was already going to be the site of the championship and third-place matches after round-robin play — with Georgia and Savannah starting from scratch.
CFC has six points in the tournament standings after beating both Georgia, 3-1, and Savannah, 3-0, in Chattanooga. Soda City has four points after a 2-1 win against Savannah and a 2-2 draw with Georgia, which has only the point earned that day.
Finley Stadium will remain closed to the public due to COVID-19 precautionary measures, which means Section 109 will not be filled with the lively Chattahooligans, but fans can watch the match live on the MyCujoo streaming app.
The rebuilt roster for CFC, which spent its first 11 years as an amateur club, has played well in Fuller's 3-5-2 system that is very similar to Sheffield United's style of play in the English Premier League. The system allows players to freely interchange positions and is one that keeps a triangular shape up and down the flanks.
After winning an eighth National Premier Soccer League conference championship in 2019, CFC is looking for an early title to celebrate in its pro era. Last year CFC was successful going around and through defenders, but the team was lacking in its ability to go over the top and get behind defenses.
CFC has been working since February on being strong in all three areas of the attack and has looked sharp this month during Independent Cup competition. Half of CFC's goals have come in the opening 20 minutes.
Fuller said he has been excited every day to learn a new style of play just as much as his players. While he has led two soccer programs, Mobile and Belhaven, to National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championships and worked as an assistant for Major League Soccer franchises New England and Philadelphia, the 61-year old is still a big fan of finding out new tricks of the coaching trade.
"This team is vastly different than we were in the NPSL last year," said Fuller, who obtained a master's in coaching through a partnership between the French Football Federation and MLS in which he earned his Elite Formation Coaching License.
"We are learning a completely new style of play and trying to find our identity," Fuller explained. "This team has the chance to be really good, and it's going to be something new for everyone to watch in terms of our attack. We want to put forth a performance that our fans can be proud of. CFC has been a great club, but we want to raise the bar and win national championships."
Juan Hernandez continues to be integral to the team's success. Fuller is impressed by the veteran's ability to see a passing lane and know where to go with the ball before anyone else.
New goalkeeper Alec Redington has also made great strides since February, when CFC played its first — and until this month, only — match of 2020, a 1-1 draw against NISA opponent Oakland Roots SC in California.
"Alec comes to work every day," Fuller said. "He brings his tripod and camera, and films all of his sessions and then goes home and studies them. He and Matt Mozynski are doing really well and are putting forth a good battle against one another."
With a championship to fight for, there should be no lack of motivation for anyone.
"The team has expressed it multiple times to our coaching staff, and we feel the same way, that winning the cup for the fans is our number one priority," Fuller said. "Honestly, it's not for us. We really want to try to give them something and give a quality performance so the people watching the stream can be pleased and proud of who we are. Our guys want to win it bad."