It was just last season that the Chattanooga Red Wolves, when facing a second-half deficit or the prospect of a draw, might have folded and accepted the result they had at the time.
Jimmy Obleda found that very frustrating, so when the Red Wolves were building their roster for 2021 and his second season as coach, he made sure to bring in players who had a hunger for the game of soccer. He wanted players who had crawled out of the lowest of places and who would appreciate their place on the roster but also strive to improve their position.
He wanted the 20th-best player on the team to fight to be the best. He wanted the subs to feel slighted they weren't starters — and to compete every minute they were in the game.
Case in point: Josue Espana didn't play in the club's season-opening 1-0 win at North Texas last month. After that, he went and had a conversation with Obleda, then got on the field and scored two goals a match later when the Red Wolves drew 2-2 with the New England Revolution on May 16 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
That hunger has been on full display through Chattanooga's first four matches of this USL League One season. The Red Wolves have three wins and a draw heading into Saturday's 7 p.m. meeting with South Georgia Tormenta FC (1-6) in Statesboro. In the past three matches, Chattanooga trailed in the second half but used its never-say-die approach to earn at least one point in the standings.
It's why, down 2-0 against the Revolution, the Red Wolves didn't blink. It's why in back-to-back matches at CHI Memorial Stadium, they scored in stoppage time to defeat Fort Lauderdale CF 2-1 on May 22 and got a goal in the 84th minute to pull off a 2-1 comeback against the Richmond Kickers last weekend.
"That's a basic fundamental approach of what we're about," Obleda told the Times Free Press recently. "Nothing has been given to any of us, including myself. We've had to work for it, and we value being here, we value representing this city and this club and we're not going to take it for granted. When we started looking at players, we said, 'OK, this guy, he's a great soccer player, plus he has that extra part of his DNA, that survival skill. What brought this team together was their commonality of the struggles and the fights and what they've had to do to get to where they are today."
Where they are today is in the top four of the points-based league standings despite playing fewer matches than any team in the top nine. Where they are is in a competitive environment where if mistakes are made, there will be someone in line to take that playing time.
They're also in the midst of building something from the bottom both on the field and off. Their hope is that their work will produce wins and championships on the field and a packed, completely functioning stadium down the road.
"People are going to come here and see all this, and then the players can say, 'Yeah, I helped build that,' Obleda said. "That's why I'm here; that's why we've done what we've done. That's why the players value it, because they helped fill that stadium, helped get people to come out and support the team. I think for me, that's what gets me up; that's what keeps me moving forward. I just really want to make a difference; it's not even sometimes about the soccer, it's about making a difference in every aspect of life and in sports."