On August 8, the National Premier Soccer League shocked the US soccer landscape by drawing a record crowd to Chattanooga FC’s Finley Stadium for the NPSL National Championship match. Although many of the 18,227 fans left disappointed after Chattanooga fell to New York Cosmos B, interest in the league and Chattanooga FC was raised.
Considered the fourth-tier of US soccer, the NPSL was made up of 68 teams stretched across the country in 2015. Split into regional conferences, Chattanooga FC played their fourth NPSL Final in six seasons. Always the bridesmaid, the club are still looking for their first piece of NPSL Championship silverware. This year’s final marked the second consecutive year the team had lost to a ‘B-squad’ from New York, as the team lost the 2014 installment to New York Red Bulls U-23. Despite the setback, however, the club is extremely optimistic for the future; and proud of the ground they have covered since debuting in 2009.
Recently, in an exclusive interview with World Soccer Talk, Chattanooga FC co-founder Tim Kelly spoke about the club’s success and their ambitions for the future.
Drew Farmer: Firstly, let’s start with the amazing crowd that came out to Finley Stadium for the NPSL National Championship game between Chattanooga FC and New York Cosmos B. A reported 18,227 were at the final. What was the atmosphere like for that game and how has the support for the club been throughout the season, because most of the US soccer media has only just picked up on Chattanooga FC thanks to the final?
Time Kelly: The atmosphere for that game was incredible. Watching the pre-game ticket sales climb past our previous total attendance record was just surreal, and then seeing that crowd in the stadium was just beyond anything we dreamed possible when we founded the club. Support throughout the season was good, but slightly lower than what we hoped for, largely, we think, due to some midweek games. However, I think we still lead the NPSL by a wide margin in average attendance at 4,673.
Drew Farmer: Obviously, the soccer has to be good to bring people out, but Chattanooga regularly does well in attendance. What’s the team’s secret to success?
Tim Kelly: Well, if it were a secret, I’m not sure I’d share it, but as best I can tell, it’s this: we have an incredible supporters group, the Chattahooligans, who really make the players feel loved, so they play great, which attracts more fans, which attracts the best players the following season, and the “virtuous circle” just spirals upwards. It also helps that we have a great facility in Finley Stadium, and we stay on top of technology and social media to market and manage the enterprise in the most efficient way possible. And finally, we manage our brand very carefully and intentionally.
Drew Farmer: With such a great turnout for the final, do you feel Chattanooga, Nashville or Memphis, could be a future home to a North American Soccer League or Major League Soccer franchise? Is Tennessee able to support a team at that level?
Tim Kelly: We actually just created a spreadsheet with all of the data with all the markets we feel are comparable to try to determine what’s reasonable. The thing that jumped out at me was that Chattanooga plus Salt Lake City is not as large as Nashville! Chattanooga is a small market of modest means, plain and simple (#99 in the MSA rankings) so we need to be very careful to just be the best version of ourselves and not try to be something we’re not. We’re not thrilled with the setup, structure, or stability of any of the current league structures, so we are biding our time, and are not going to do anything unless we’re sure it’ll honor our fans and our city, and their wallets, in the process.
Drew Farmer: Let’s talk about Chattanooga FC and your history as a team. The club currently play in the National Premier Soccer League, which is the fourth-tier of US soccer. Is the team’s main objective to develop future professionals in MLS, NASL or United Soccer League?
Tim Kelly: Our internal “vision statement” established after our first season was to be “The best amateur soccer club in the US”. Having won the Hank Steinbrecher Cup this year, we can now say that on the field and I think from the front office perspective as well, considering our attendance. The question for us now, is whether to continue with that, or try to ramp it up to the next level? Frankly, we’re pretty darn happy doing what we’re doing.
Drew Farmer: So, 2015 was the seventh season for the club. Can you tell me about some of the notable players to come though the team and gone on to teams in higher tiers of the American soccer pyramid?
Tim Kelly: Some of the more notable have been Mark Sherrod (San Jose Earthquakes), Niall McCabe (Louisville City), Sean McFarlane and Thomas Hunter (Atlanta Silverbacks).
Drew Farmer: With the success of Chattanooga FC, is there a chance the club will look to join the third tier United Soccer League or the second tier North American Soccer League in the future?
Tim Kelly: We see the PDL as a lateral move, at best, so that definitely isn’t happening. We don’t agree that it’s the third-tier, and NPSL is fourth. We beat PDL teams regularly. As for the other moves, we are not in any hurry. We know who we are, and are flattered by the attention, but are not going to betray our roots or our core principles, which are to provide a great value to our fans and reflect the culture of our city.
Drew Farmer: Back to this past season, tell me about some of the standout players and coach Bill Elliot. How important has his work been with this club?
Tim Kelly: Bill has been outstanding, obviously. He’s just a great fit with the players and the board and would probably enjoy being here even if we stank because he grew up here, and this allows him to bring his wife and kids back here in the summer to be near his parents. As far as players go, they are quite literally a team, and have meshed with the community phenomenally well. There are plenty of favorites, but as an old goalkeeper, I have a special place for Greg Hartley and Chris Baker, an outstanding keeper, though he didn’t get a ton of time in net. As for the others, we clearly would not have gotten where we did this year without Luke Winter. Luke has that nose for goal that cannot be coached. And at the back, Sean Rutter really got it done for us this year as well. Leo DeSmedt was also very key at clutch times, and a ton of fun to watch. He caught the eye of many new fans. In addition, Chris Ochieng has been a soldier for us for many years, just a bedrock of a player. Other standouts that must be mentioned: Luis Trude and Zeca, our No. 8 and No. 9, both gave opposing sides absolute fits and created tons of space for the strikers to work with.
Drew Farmer: Finally, let’s look ahead to 2016. What are the club’s plans? Can we expect more crowds like the ones we saw at the end of the season at Finley Stadium?
Tim Kelly: Well, our dirty little secret is that we’re run by a volunteer board of six to eight guys; depending on workloads, day jobs and vacations. We really love this game and this city, and bust our butts to put on this show every year. We really have only one paid administrative staffer. We’re realizing now that this has grown beyond our ability to do in our spare time, so we will be doing some “deep dives” in the off season to see what’s next. But I think you can expect that it’ll be bigger and better. We are not backing up, that’s for sure!
Follow Drew Farmer on Twitter @DrewMFarmer. Drew Farmer is a Manchester, England-based journalist/blogger that writes for World Soccer Talk. Drew also writes his on blog at Soccer Travels. Drew has contributed to Radio Yorkshire MLS Monday, Forza Italian Football, MLSGB and Soccerly. Originally from southwest Missouri, Drew covers Italy’s Serie A, English Premier League, German Bundesliga and the USA’s Major League Soccer.