For the first time since Oct. 26, 2019, fans entered Finley Stadium on Saturday night to cheer for the Chattanooga Football Club, a team that has brought thousands of local soccer fans together since it was founded in 2009.
And making the night even more special, the "boys in blue" continued their success for this year with a thrilling 2-1 defeat of the New York Cosmos, one of their longtime rivals.
Down 1-0 at halftime, Darwin Lom scored off a penalty kick in the 75th minute. In the 82nd minute, Clayton Adams cut from the right sideline to the middle, where he sent a left-footed missile into the upper left from 25 yards away.
Chattanooga FC kicked off its first season as a professional club and a member of the National Independent Soccer Association on the road in late February, but not long after that the league suspended competition due to the coronavirus pandemic. CFC returned this summer with three wins at Finley Stadium in the NISA Independent Cup, but fans were not permitted at the time, and the first two matches of the fall schedule were played in the Detroit area.
Finally, a contest against New Amsterdam FC set for Aug. 29 that would have marked the return of CFC fans to home matches was postponed when the New York team declined to travel to Chattanooga to play, sitting out as a statement of support for racial justice and against police brutality during a week when several athletes and leagues made similar stands.
On Saturday, while a limited crowd was far from typical with assigned seating, social distancing and face masks part of the protocol, a return to the venue many call "Fort Finley" was undoubtedly a fantastic feeling for CFC supporters.
"Time away from the stadium and team has been a challenge for a lot of CFC fans," Jonathan Hunter said ahead of the match. "With COVID separating us from the game, it makes you think hard and realize how good you've had it. Life goes on without it, but the time away made me cherish everything I have been through with CFC and so much more."
Hunter still remembers how he became intrigued by the club.
"At first I didn't know what CFC was, but in 2011 I attended my first game and have been a big fan ever since," said Hunter, who is a member of the Chattahooligans, who are known as one of the most vocal supporter sections in lower-tier soccer in the country.
"My wife and I would walk our dog at the park behind the First Tennessee Pavilion on Saturdays, and I had heard the crowd noise a couple of times. I told her one weekend that I wanted to check out a game. I had a great time."
Some members of CFC's die-hard fan base haven't been too far away this season, as many would watch the online streams of home matches just outside the stadium walls at Chattanooga Brewing Company, where their cheers could still be heard, albeit a few seconds behind a home goal or the final whistle to end a victory.
CFC players recently stepped out of their comfort zone to share frightening experiences they have had in their lives when they experienced racial profiling or unjust treatment. CFC players and members of other teams have been gathering together before matches this season and locking arms to show support of one another as well as to fight for racial equality.
"These men put everything out there for the fans and this club, and I think we owe them to support what they are standing for," Hunter said. "We also all need to work in a way where we can all create change and do better. We can all do it, together."
First-year coach Peter Fuller's team has played well despite unusual circumstances, with CFC now 5-1 since returning to action on July 11, which includes a 2-1 mark in NISA Group A fall league play.
CFC will play one more regular-season match at home, against New Amsterdam at 7 p.m. Wednesday, before the league's tournament. The championship event will include eight teams that will compete in a round-robin format beginning Sept. 21 and with a champion crowned Oct. 2.
The entirety of the tournament will be played at Keyworth Stadium in Detroit.