Is it hyperbole to say the battle for the soul of American soccer is being waged in Chattanooga, Tennessee?
Sure. That’s way over the top.
But I’m going to say it anyway because, in a sense, one of the battles for the soul of American soccer is most certainly being waged in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In one corner you have Chattanooga Football Club, mainstays of the National Premier Soccer League (an affiliate of the United States Adult Soccer Association) and proof that adult amateur soccer can, indeed, be elite.
They have rabid support – led by the Chattahooligans – and have turned the Scenic City into the scene of some of the best grassroots soccer anywhere in the United States.
And in the other corner is Chattanooga Pro Soccer, an ownership group in the United Soccer League’s upstart USL Division III.
They’re set to field a team of paid players in 2019 under the umbrella of a league that is sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation – and one that fits perfectly within the closed pyramid, American soccer model.
So why are so many people in Chattanooga pissed off about having two teams?
Because community soccer is a pretty big deal when you’ve built that community, and that’s what Chattanooga FC and its faithful have done over the past 10 years.
Founded in 2009, CFC has been not only a consistent winner on the pitch but a box office success as well. Playing at Finley Stadium, which seats 20,000-plus, the club is a solid draw and will never be accused of having “casual” supporters.
These people are true believers and have been given something to believe in for a decade.
Obviously the USL took notice, and decided it wanted a piece of the action. CFC chairman Tim Kelly, however, wants the homegrown team to chart its own course.
Simply put, he isn’t sold on the new league.
“It’s not a sustainable business model, we don’t feel,” he told the Times Free Press in Chattanooga. “We’re not going to (make a move like that) just to say we’re a pro team.”
Enter Robert Martino, a real estate agent in Utah who is now staking claim to soccer real estate near the Tennessee River.
“This is a fantastic opportunity and watershed moment for soccer fans in Chattanooga,” Martino said. “This market has proven that it has the right ingredients to launch and sustain a professional franchise, and we are excited to take this next step into USL Division III for fans and the community. I applaud the existing grassroots support and passionate fan base already in place in the city, and I welcome the opportunity for us to work together to realize the great vision for professional soccer in Chattanooga.
“Our goal is to build upon the remarkable soccer history that has been created here, and establish a professional club of which both fans and our community can be proud – one that will make a lasting contribution to what makes this city great.”
Yeah, that prepared statement didn’t go over terribly well with a good portion of the “passionate fan base already in place in the city,” – not according to Twitter mentions, anyway.
Adding insult to injury, (former) CFC general manager Sean McDaniel resigned from the club and joined forces with the new entity.
McDaniel is co-founder of Chattanooga FC and was an NPSL board member.
But, such is life in American soccer.
Club teams like the idea of putting down roots and seeing how big they can grow.
“We are pleased that CFC’s success has drawn national attention to our city, and we remain committed to keeping Chattanooga FC as Chattanooga’s homegrown team,” CFC tweeted. “Our club was founded for Chattanoogans by Chattanoogans, and, after 10 years, we are dedicated to growing Chattanooga FC in a fiscally responsible manner from the grassroots up. Professional soccer has eyed our incredible support in Chattanooga and now wants to enter our market. Chattanooga FC has grown organically, built a solid fan base, introduced the sport to kids and adults alike, helped launch a women’s team and hosted national teams from around the world. Chattanooga FC embodies the ‘Chattanooga Way’ where we bring the community together who share our values to make the city a better place. Our board is already working on plans for the 2019 season and we look forward to strengthening our bonds throughout the community during the off season.”
Franchise owners like the buy-in option, and the USSF heartily endorses this franchise model.
Whether it’s Major League Soccer or the USL, the idea is to identify markets, put a team in place, and make money for the owner/operators.
Nothing wrong with that, of course – no one gets into business to go broke – but the differences between community soccer and franchise soccer is stark. For clubs like CFC, community is the business.
In the case of the USL team in Chattanooga, team officials want to parachute into town after all the advance work has been done by the NPSL team. And they apparently expect Chattanooga FC supporters to share their allegiance, if not switch it.
“In light of recent circumstances, it’s important to reiterate that Chattanooga FC was built and not bought,” Kelly wrote on the club’s website on Friday.
Interim GM Sheldon Grizzle added, “Chattanooga FC has been homegrown from day one and we are committed to keeping it that way. In concert with our supporters and community stakeholders, against all odds, we have a created something truly unique in Chattanooga. Professional and amateur soccer team ownership groups from around the country continue to look at Chattanooga as an inspiration for what can happen when something is created from the ground up.”
Invading this territory is an extremely aggressive move by the USL (and by proxy, the USSF), so a peaceful coexistence just ain’t gonna happen. And you have to wonder why a fledgling league started such a big fight right out of the gate.
Franchises were already in place in Statesboro, Georgia, Greenville, South Carolina, Madison, Wisconsin, Tucson, Arizona, and Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in advance of a 2019 launch. And there are plenty of other cities to choose from that, unlike Chattanooga, don’t already have a club embedded in the town’s culture.*
*While Greenville FC just completed its first season and built a solid base, the city and USL Division III were already openly courting each other before the NPSL club was formed. In addition, Greenville Pro Soccer is spearheaded by a local ownership group.
Yet instead of respecting one of the crown jewels of lower division soccer, the USL opted for a power play and swooped in on a city that is already spoken for.
Does USL have a legal right to put a team in Chattanooga?
Does that make it right?
It depends on whose side you’re on.
So get ready for one helluva fight.
And as a fan of grassroots soccer, I already know who I want to win.