Atlanta United's Brooks Lennon makes a cross early in the first half.
photo by Greg Davick
Scarves of light blue and jerseys of dark red spewed through the gates of Finley Stadium as Chattanooga’s Southside became a hub for southeastern soccer enthusiasts on sunny Saturday afternoon. An excitement-filled first half provided all of the offense in this one, and the game ended in a 3-3 draw.
Frigid weather subsiding just in time for the weekend friendly allowed fans to cram themselves into the stands where they were met by spirited chants and the impassioned banging of drums that created prototypical soccer hullabaloo which rebounded from the pitch, echoing through signal and lookout mountain, and leaving metropolitan Chattanooga in a frenzy all afternoon.
“That’s what a football town needs to be,” said Chattanooga head coach Rod Underwood. “Hopefully that continues to grow because it’s so important that you have that feel,” said Underwood.
The final count in Finley Stadium was 7,513 people, the largest batch of spectators for Chattanooga FC since 2017 when they played host to the very same opponent. That day in early February six years ago holds a special place in the hearts of Atlanta United fans, as it was the very first match in the organization’s history.
“Some environments are too big for some players,” said Underwood. “Our guys were fine in the environment, which is good.”
Fans atop blankets congregated on the grass behind the east goal where they enjoyed the fanfare and mingled among the food trucks to watch the high-paced action.
The home teams wasted no time treating them to thrilling soccer as they pursued the upset, springing into the lead in the seventh minute with a goal by golden boot winner Markus Naglestad who struck a loose ball into the back of the net from in close.
The celebration didn’t last long though, as the Five Stripes struck back quickly with a penalty shot from Luiz Araujo. The 26-year-old stutter-stepped to the ball before firing the shot with his non-dominant right foot into the upper-left corner of the goal beyond the outstretched hands of Chattanooga’s newly acquired reigning goalkeeper of the year Jean Antoine.
10 minutes later, Atlanta United struck again. A diving attempt in traffic from Antoine resulted in the ball popping free where the six-foot-two Sudanese striker Machop Chol came away with one of the easier goals of his life, tapping the ball into the net while all alone out in front.
Chattanooga’s early lead had not only disappeared, but turned into a one-goal deficit.
Instead of losing momentum from the two unanswered scores, Chattanooga’s midfielders and wings got back to work. In the 27th minute, their consistent attack paid off. What five-and-a-half foot tall Damian “the kid” Rodriguez lacks in stature, he makes up for in skill and finesse. The 20-year-old out of Dalton High School made a brilliant touch and an accurate cross into the box where lethal goal-scorer Markus Naglestad was once again waiting for it. Naglestad took a touch and netted the shot to even the score.
“That was awesome,” said Naglestad. “I couldn’t really ask for a better experience,” added Naglestad, appreciating the raucous environment created by the Chattanoogan support.
Shortly thereafter, Antoine had another tough moment when his pass to a defenseman was taken away, and Atlanta striker Luiz Araujo beat him with a quick shot for his second goal of the match. Once again, Araujo had sullied the scenic city momentum and grabbed the lead for his squad.
“It’s always good to score a couple of goals,” said Araujo. “I have a lot of confidence in myself and my team, and hopefully I can score many goals this year in the MLS,” added Araujo.
Budding star Damian Rodriguez promptly fired a jolt of gaiety right back into the building though. Rodriguez went on a magical run down the sideline, leaving fans aghast and defenders in the past on his way to deliver another masterful cross. This one found midfielder Alex McGrath who deposited the equalizer for Chattanooga just before the half.
In the one minute of added time, Antoine lived up to his reputation making a miraculous save to keep the game locked at three as the halftime whistle sounded. As the players made their way to the locker room, a call and response chant of “Chatta!…Nooga!” rattled the entire stadium after a first half that galvanized the proud locals.
To begin the second half, both teams played completely new groups as coaches assess the skills of young talent vying for roster spots and playing time. Atlanta United’s newly appointed President and CEO Garth Lagerwey is on the hunt for fresh talent after the team recently released star striker Josef Martinez. Lagerway is looked at by many as the greatest sporting director in MLS history, given his key role in the Seattle Sounders becoming the first MLS team to ever win the CONCACAF Champions League.
The second 45 was filled with back-and-forth action from trialists on both sides who are looking to become fixtures in their respective lineups. What was missing in the second half, however, was the goal-scoring. The three three tie endured several chances from both sides and the match ended in a draw worthy of praise for the Chattanooga FC squad who played a club that won the MLS Cup just five short years ago.
“This shows that we can compete with anyone on this continent,” said a confident Naglestad. “Their budget is probably 100 times ours if not more and we gave them a good game… we’re going to step on the field to beat anyone in our league,” he added.
Coming off of a second-place finish in the National Independent Soccer Association, soccer fans in Chattanooga have a lot to be excited about with the group that will look to exceed their great 2022 season with an even better campaign in 2023.
Atlanta United 3 0 - 3
Chattanooga FC 3 0 - 3
Goal Scorers: Atlanta United: Araujo 2, Machop Chol; Chattanooga FC: Naglestad 2, McGrath.
Atlanta United and CFC flags were flying high.
photo by Greg Davick