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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / The jumbo video screen on the scoreboard at CHI Memorial Stadium shows the on-field action during the Chattanooga Red Wolves' match against North Carolina FC on June 20 in East Ridge. The Red Wolves won 3-2.

Matt Gann has been going to Chattanooga Red Wolves matches since the USL League One team started playing in 2019.

He has seen the progress of the site where the Red Wolves now play home matches, which has gone from a pile of dirt two years ago before becoming a field with some stands in 2020 — and much more than that this year. Gann was among the local soccer fans who believed in the vision of team owner Bob Martino, who said in 2018 that he wanted to bring a "professional experience" to the city.

Martino, a developer from Park City, Utah, initially wanted to partner with the Chattanooga Football Club to form one team, but that proposal was shot down. He was unable to secure a contract with Finley Stadium, where Chattanooga FC has played its home matches since forming as an amateur club in 2009 (the club went pro and began competition in the National Independent Soccer Association last year).

That led some, if not most, people with CFC connections to suggest the marriage between Martino and the Scenic City would be short-lived. Or, as Red Wolves general manager Sean McDaniel said this past week: "We came into a market that was skeptical and unsure."

The Red Wolves played their debut season in 2019 at Chattanooga Christian School's David Stanton Field — a nice venue, but also a facility not able to provide the pledged professional experience. All the while Martino and the club were working on a $150 million mixed-use development in East Ridge, which is slowly taking shape.

But Martino came to the city for a soccer team, right?

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CHI Memorial Stadium progress continues

So while the entire development has been a progress, the immediate need was to work on the soccer facility, CHI Memorial Stadium. First it was the field, which was surrounded by some bleachers but mainly dirt. The early additions this season included lights, which have allowed night matches, and a jumbotron, with the large video screen fully functioning in the season opener.

The latest big addition: Executive suites, which officially opened with Wednesday night's 1-0 win over North Texas SC.

And that's where Gann comes in. Gann was part of a 20-person group of adults and kids who sat in the Keller Williams suite for the first of many matches as part of a three-year lease. It's one of seven suites already finished, with the final one nearly complete.

"It was important to us to get in on the ground floor and be some of the first people to do it," Gann said. "The opportunity to get one of the boxes was great. Obviously, you look and they're not done, but once they get this finished, this is going to be fantastic.

"We're really excited."

Members of the executive club watch matches from the enclosed suites or in the executive section outside near midfield, and they have an opportunity to partake of the buffet and enjoy alcoholic drinks, which are currently just select beers and ciders on tap but should be expanding to add liquor sales very soon at a full-service bar in the middle of the club's common area.

Those same members get a chance to meet with second-year head coach Jimmy Obleda — the league coach of the month for August — and select players after matches in the club. That was the case Wednesday night, when the Red Wolves won in dramatic fashion as Jimmie Villalobos scored in additional time off a Jonathan Ricketts assist. That win gave the Red Wolves sole possession of first place in the USL League One standings as they continued an unbeaten streak that started in mid-June.

Saturday night in South Carolina, that run came to a close as the Red Wolves lost 1-0 to the Greenville Triumph SC, as the reigning league champion improved to 8-7-6. A little later, Union Omaha finished off a 2-1 win against Toronto FC II to draw back even with Chattanooga (9-2-8) in the standings at 37 points.

The Red Wolves return to competition next Saturday against North Carolina FC, one of three remaining home matches in the regular season, with the others against the New England Revolution II on Sept. 25 and Toronto on Oct. 16.

Despite the setback on the road Saturday, Gann and other executive club members have been rewarded with plenty of on-field success from their team. Now their patience and their belief in Martino's vision are paying dividends off the field, too.

Obleda is glad to see it all happen.

"This was just a turf field with a couple of red fence nets around it, and now look at this place. This place is amazing," the coach said. "What the Martinos are building and what the Red Wolves are doing, there's no other place in the country that's going to have what we have here.

"I'm just so happy and so blessed to be living this; I tell the guys that not everybody gets to live something like this. I can coach my whole career, the guys can be playing, and they'll never be able to be a part of something that's being built around us and what's being built for us for soccer."

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

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