The Chattanooga Red Wolves organization looked at the overall roster after last season and decided it could be better.
For the 2020 schedule, delayed by and then played amid the COVID-19 pandemic, chances had been taken on players who looked good on paper — chances the soccer club may not have taken if there had been more time to truly evaluate the players. It was something head coach Jimmy Obleda privately, and sometimes publicly, expressed frustration about during his first year leading the team.
Frankly, they just weren't good enough to compete for a USL League One championship.
"When we sat down at the end of last season and we knew we had so many roster spots to fill, we just mapped it out," general manager Sean McDaniel said recently. "We decided what kind of football we wanted to play and what type of player can make that happen. And it wasn't just on the field, but when in the locker room, in the city, the culture of the team. As we put our criteria together, that's what we got busy working towards."
It wasn't as if last season was bad — the Red Wolves finished 6-5-4, good for fifth out of 11 teams — but they wanted to be better, especially considering the inconsistency of the season, one with a five-game streak without a defeat that was followed by four losses in the final five matches. With a new stadium that has been an ongoing development — the next major step will be the installation of new lights, which were delivered Friday — the Red Wolves wanted to be competitive this year as they entered their third season.
During a recently completed three-match preseason, more than 15 new players received opportunities to get on the field with the Red Wolves, who went 2-1 and scored four goals — all of them by players not on the 2020 roster.
Now the focus turns to the 28-game regular season, which begins Saturday with a match at North Texas SC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern in Arlington. The Red Wolves then have another road match, against the New England Revolution on May 16, before their home opener against Fort Lauderdale CF on May 22 — a conveniently placed date when CHI Memorial Stadium is expected to have its lights, finally making night games possible at the East Ridge venue.
Most preseason prognostications have the newly revamped Chattanooga club projected to finish in the top half of USL League One, perhaps a surprise with so many new faces but a prediction that speaks to the quality of talent brought in by the Red Wolves.
For the club, though, the focus has been the culture being built by Obleda and his staff, which is intended to stay the same no matter who's on the field or on the roster.
"Jimmy has a style that he implemented when he came in last year, and I think when he went out to look for players, the players that he brought in, he knew can play that style," defender Ricky Ruiz, one of the returning players, said recently. "So when we all got together, we all started training, we started working on tactical stuff. Everyone is getting the hang of that real quick, so I think we're going to get it down a lot sooner than we did last year."