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Staff file photo / The Chattahooligans fan group cheers on the home team during the Chattanooga Football Club's match against the Birmingham Hammers on May 20, 2017, at Finley Stadium.

When he signed with the Chattanooga Football Club in 2020, Richard Dixon was pretty stunned by the amount of people worldwide who knew of the former National Premier Soccer League club.

Chattanooga FC was in the process of beginning its professional era and first year in the National Independent Soccer Association at the time. Having been an amateur organization for more than a decade, though, the club was essentially built from the bottom in a grassroots fashion that only further impressed soccer fans and observers even beyond the Scenic City.

Dixon has now been in Chattanooga for three seasons; he came to the city in 2019 to play with the Red Wolves in the USL League One team's debut season but moved over last year to CFC. One reason he made the switch was a connection to Bill Elliott, Dixon's college coach at West Florida who was the head coach of CFC from 2012-19 and is now the pro team's technical director.

"When I first moved to Chattanooga, I was playing on the opposite team, and when I mentioned that I was playing in Chattanooga, many people thought I was talking about CFC because they have witnessed what the team has done over many years in the NPSL," Dixon said recently. "They had the game with over 18,000 fans, and you don't see that in amateur soccer.

"To have that support and to be nationally televised, it shows that people are watching as well and people know about the club. Now you go around the country and you mention CFC, everybody knows about the club."

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Staff file photo / Chattanooga Football Club players celebrate with the Chattahooligans fan group after winning 2-0 in a regional final against Tulsa Athletics on July 19, 2014, at Finley Stadium.

When the first NISA Legends Cup was held this past spring at Finley Stadium, the tournament finalists were Chattanooga and Detroit City FC. Both teams were a big part of the formation of the NISA, which, after a failed attempt to start in 2018, became a third-division league in American pro soccer.

The story of Detroit City FC is similar to that of CFC — an independent club that forged its own path into the pro ranks — and it's a venture Chattanooga head coach Peter Fuller believes can be emulated in other places.

"You look at the major leagues, the USL, Major League Soccer, all of that, and it's kind of a boys' club," Fuller said last week regarding the exclusivity of the higher divisions of the sport in the United States. "The good thing about what we've done and what Detroit's done, it was an idea by one person or a group that all of a sudden developed into a club that all of a sudden joined the league, that all of a sudden that league became a national league.

"What this says is for a team in, you know, Murfreesboro, if they want to have an idea and put something together and start a team and develop it and grow it, it's possible. So much of sports at the pro level has really become a closed shop, and I'm not just talking about soccer. You can say it in basketball, hockey, football, all the way through, and I think the one thing we've been able to show and Detroit's been able to show is that if you build it, they will come, the whole 'Field of Dreams' thing. That's what excites me, is that we can say to anybody out there that this is possible, and we know it because we did it, right?"

It has also made the experience special for Dixon, a 31-year-old from Jamaica, who spent multiple years playing in the second-division USL Championship.

"It means a lot being here with this team, because I've always had an eye on CFC ever since Coach Elliott came here to coach the first season," Dixon said. "Just seeing how the team grew from literally nothing to building a professional league, but along the journey having seen the success they've had and the support, not just from the local community but from fans all around the world, it just speaks volumes of how important it is to build from the ground up and get the support here first and then branch out."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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