ROBERT IVORY PREVIEWS THE NPSL FINAL

Maybe the third time is the charm for the Chattanooga Football Club. In 2010, three unanswered goals to Sacramento Gold saw CFC’s Championship dreams falter. Two years later, a 1-0 defeat to FC Sonic again crushed their hopes.

Now in 2014, Chattanooga FC find themselves in prime position to win their first ever National Premier Soccer League Championship when they meet the New York Red Bulls U-23 squad Saturday (Aug 2) at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ.

“It’s a nice opportunity,” Chattanooga forward Luke Winter said of the match. “It’s a great opportunity to travel with the team, but a huge opportunity to win a national championship. The Red Bulls are going to be a great team and since they have the MLS side, they get the pick of the players. So they are going to be quality.”

Chattanooga standout goalkeeper Greg Hartley also finds it exciting to be playing at RBA.

“It’s going to be major especially since we are going to be playing at the actual stadium,” he said. “I have played in big stadiums in England, but hopefully the supporters can make the trip up and experience this with us. It’s amazing when we play at home.”

For those CFC fans that cannot make the trip, the game is being broadcasted live on a local television station for all fans to see in the Chattanooga area. This is a sign that soccer is growing in the smallest of places around the country.

Despite the club hosting both the Southeast Finals, South Finals, and the National Semifinal, Chattanooga FC will now have to travel the over 800 miles to one of the most prestigious soccer-specific stadiums in the country. An added bonus for fans that want to watch the match, the kickoff for the match is slated for 9:30 p.m. ET since the Championship match will commence after the New York Red Bulls face the New England Revolution in a Major League Soccer regular season match.

“The opportunity to play in a MLS stadium after a professional game is fantastic. A lot of our fans are going to make the trip and we’re excited to have the fans with us in this big match,” the forward said.

“The Chattahooligans are fantastic; they embrace the team and have helped get the entire city to back what we are doing.”

With the fans of Chattanooga showing up in droves during the year, the team was able to attract the largest crowd for a NPSL match ever in the “Scenic City” as over eight thousand packed Finley Stadium last weekend.

Chattanooga FC has already gotten over one of their demons, beating the Sacramento Gold last weekend in the National Semifinals with a 4-1 win. Sacramento defeated CFC in 2010 in the NPSL Final, but last weekend, no starter in the Chattanooga lineup played in that matchup in 2010, not even head coach Bill Elliott was there.

“The accomplishment this team can have is winning this weekend is massive, but the win in the U.S. Open Cup was a special win for this team and this city,” Winter added. “We’ve had a lot of many different special moments this year.”

In that Open Cup match, Chattanooga FC beat the Wilmington Hammerheads of the North American Soccer League 3-1 with Winter scoring a pair of goals for the first-ever win by a NPSL club over a professional outfit.

Not all of 2014 has been easy sailing. Two early setbacks in late May saw losses by division foe New Orleans Jesters (3-2) and a 5-0 thrashing by the hands of the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League in the U.S. Open Cup had CFC scratching their heads. But since that loss to the NASL side, they have won 12 out of 13, and drawing 1-1 at Rocket City United.

CFC have been continually gotten better in their run in the playoffs, as they have been a goal scoring machine, outscoring their opponents 18-2 in the five playoff matches they have played in, collecting four straight clean sheets.

“I just go out there and play my own game,” Hartley said of the continual stream of confidence that his coach, Bill Elliott, gives after each match. “I appreciate what all the people say about how good I am, but now I am just concentrating on the next game. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him either, it’s been great few years and we have a great bond.”

A major piece of that machine has been Winter as his coach continually sings Luke Winter’s praises, as well, and bills him as a player that scores at the right time in the right situation.

“The goal doesn’t move, you just have to find the net somehow,” Winter said in a moment of wisdom. “It’s nice to be relied on, but you just have to go out there and have fun. I think we have a lot of skillful players that can be a star player on other teams, but everyone has a chance to shine. There are crucial plays made all throughout the team.”

“I think it’s the actual organization,” Hartley said of why the team has come together like it has. “The people around us including those in the community to our coaches, they see us not playing as individuals, but as a cohesive team.”

Being that last line of defense and being ready for anything, Hartley is ready for the final showdown in the match, even if that comes to penalties.

“Definitely,” he said when asked about penalties. “We practice for it, even if it’s just me and my pals just messing around before practice. We have quite a few quality players that can put the ball in the back of the net. Hopefully we can come through if it goes to PKs.”

Despite this being another chance for the club to rectify what has gone wrong in the past championship matches, Winter says it has been just another week at the office as they prepare for the Red Bulls.

“We have been working on staying healthy and fit. We’ll certainly be ready to go on Saturday.”

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