A drive into the grounds of CHI Memorial Stadium, where the Chattanooga Red Wolves SC will soon become Tennessee's first professional soccer team to host a match at a venue specific to that sport, reveals a lot of incomplete facilities.
The area behind what will eventually be the press box? Pure dirt. The bleachers aren't complete. What will eventually be an executive suite — including a full-service bar and restaurant — is nowhere close to being done. Sky boxes? The party deck? Not yet.
The surroundings aren't finished, but the field is. And on Saturday the Red Wolves will play on it, hosting Arizona's FC Tucson in a USL League One match at 5 p.m.
On July 9, 2019, ground was broken for Red Wolves owner Bob Martino's $125 million development in East Ridge that is highlighted by the stadium. Sean McDaniel, the team's president and general manager, admits there were times when he questioned whether the field would be playable this season, though the team's schedule wound up being delayed for months by the coronavirus pandemic.
As he saw the work being put in, though, those questions vanished.
"There were moments where I thought the vision and the dream were just that — a vision and a dream," McDaniel said Friday. "But when I saw the dirt moving and really when I saw the turf go down, I realized we were going to play soccer here."
When the stadium is done, it will seat 5,500 people. Due to the combination of an incomplete stadium and the need to provide space between spectators as part of coronavirus precautions, attendance for the match against Tucson, labeled as a sellout, will likely be closer to 750.
Red Wolves captain Steven Beattie played for the team last year in its debut season, when home games were held at Chattanooga Christian School's David Stanton Field. Any doubts he had about the fate of the new field are behind him as the Red Wolves prepare for their 2020 home debut after opening the season on the road last weekend.
"It's a great honor for me to be able to lead the boys into battle on our home field," Beattie said. "It's different playing in a high school environment; it's still Chattanooga, but it's not home. You want your own environment, and CHI Memorial is going to be the perfect environment for that."
The Red Wolves played South Georgia Tormenta FC to a 2-2 draw last Saturday in Statesboro, a match the visitors had rallied to lead for more than 25 minutes in the second half only to concede a goal in stoppage time. So while opening a new stadium is nice for the club, first-year Red Wolves coach Jimmy Obleda hopes the young squad can put together a complete effort.
The Red Wolves had the second-best record at home in the league last season at 8-1-5, but that was at CCS. A new season in a new stadium will provide a chance to create a true home-field advantage.
"We look at (last week) and we're still disappointed, but I think the attitude the team showed in the end, the ability to bounce back after going down showed a lot about them," Obleda said. "Now we're playing at home, where you kind of have to dig your feet in the same and say, 'This is where I'm at, and nobody is going to take anything from us here.' I think the team's ready; they're excited that they're here. They're more than ecstatic about this opportunity to open up here, but there's two things — the stadium opening and the game, and we have to be very professional and get the result needed.
"We want to create an environment here that, that opposing teams come and kind of go, 'Wow, that's a tough place to come play.' Not just because of the fans, and not because of the players and the team, but the fans that, you know, we want to create that environment, that pressure that the opposing team feels from the outside, feeling that considering that the stadium is close, everyone's close, by that the opposing team can feel our fans and our supporters breathing down their neck."