Although the abbreviated 2020 season was technically Chattanooga Red Wolves coach Jimmy Obleda's first in charge, nobody associated with the professional soccer team is looking at it that way.
His first year with the club was marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed the USL League One schedule back to a late July start and led to the postseason being limited to a championship match that was ultimately canceled because of coronavirus protocol. In addition, with Tim Hankinson having coached the Red Wolves during their inaugural season, there was a roster in place last year that didn't necessarily represent Obleda's vision or that of the club.
Couple all of that with the fact the Red Wolves, after playing home games at Chattanooga Christian School in 2019, were opening a brand-new venue in East Ridge — the first stadium in the state of Tennessee built specifically for a professional soccer team — that may have been, at best, about 15% complete last season.
Now fast forward to what the organization considers year one for Obleda.
CHI Memorial Stadium has made a lot of progress, with a jumbotron about to be put up that will be visible from Interstate 75. The large display screen will most likely be in place by the time the Red Wolves play their regular-season home opener May 22 against Fort Lauderdale CF after beginning with back-to-back road matches against North Texas SC (May 8) and New England Revolution II (May 16).
Also by then, more progress will be visible on the club suites and executive suites that will overlook the stands. After that will be the construction of locker rooms across from the team benches and the suites, plus the installation of lights that will allow the Red Wolves the chance to hold home matches in the evening.
As for the team itself, 16 new players found their way on the field in Saturday's preseason match against 2018 MLS champion Atlanta United FC's second club, which plays in the USL Championship division. Chattanooga won 1-0, with the goal coming from Facundo Coelho, who didn't even have a number on his jersey because he was a trial player who just arrived in town.
The exhibition featured those expected to be primary contributors for the Red Wolves playing in the first half and those fighting for roster spots taking the field after intermission, but it was enough to show why team owner Bob Martino, general manager Sean McDaniel, Obleda and others are excited about this year.
"When Bob and Sean brought me in a year ago, it was to build the type of team and environment where people want to go watch," Obleda said. "You can see everything around is kind of personifying that. People want to be at the stadium; people want to be here for these games. I wouldn't be able to do this without their support, but just seeing it and seeing this group and what it's building — the guys, the culture — little by little? I couldn't be happier.
"We have an amazing group and we're just starting out. We didn't win the championship today, but you take one little step of getting to the championship, so with humility and hard work and perseverance and dealing with all the stuff that comes, we're going to get there."
The Red Wolves finished last season 6-5-4 — two of the losses were 1-0 results against Greenville Triumph SC, the eventual league champion — and wound up fifth out of 11 teams in the league at the time. Four of the top five scorers from that Chattanooga team are gone, the exception being Marky Hernandez.
Even with the newness to the 2021 roster, a couple hundred or so season ticket holders made their way to CHI Memorial Stadium on Saturday to see the product — in the rain, no less — both on and off the field.
"The best way to define this is it's like a NASCAR crash, and there's a pileup and smoke and you just don't know what's on the other side," McDaniel said. "It's great when you can come through it, and I feel like we're coming out of that, that pileup, that wreckage that was COVID, and now as we emerge from this, everything that was gripping us last year, it is so great to see the energy the players have, even today on a rainy preseason match.
"We've got hundreds of season ticket holders here. It's just a glimpse of what we expect to happen in 2021."