Chattanooga FC has been here before, twice in the National Premier Soccer League’s title game, and Bill Elliott remembers the last, two years ago, as “both teams were just incredibly solid defensively [and] there were virtually no chances in the game, either end.”
The Tennessee club lost to Pennsylvania’s FC Sonic that day, a 1-0 decision on a header from a corner kick. Now they’re back, and Elliott, Chattanooga’s head coach, doesn’t expect anything similar this time around.
He’s got a ton of firepower this year, and so does Simon Nee’s New York Red Bulls U-23 side, and that’s a tantalizing prospect heading into Saturday night’s NPSL championship game at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
This one could be a classic.
The Red Bulls are seeking to complete a perfect campaign and snatch their first title, and Chattanooga, which also lost in the 2010 final, is looking to grasp the silverware that eluded it twice before.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” says Nee, whose team is 15-0-0. “Perhaps the two best teams now in the NPSL will play off in what should be a great game.”
An electric one, too. The Red Bulls have scored some 64 goals (while conceding just seven, three of them in a playoff victory over the Brooklyn Italians) and have 10 players who have hit the net at least three times, including Victor Manosalvas, who won a share of the Puma Golden Boot as the NPSL’s top scorer. He has 13, including the postseason, with another seven assists.
Chattanooga isn’t far behind. It’s lost just once this year, in the season’s opening weeks back in May, brings a 12-1-2 mark into the final (plus another victory that was scratched after their opponent folded midseason), and has scored 48 goals (surrendering just 10). Nine of their players have scored at least three times, with playmaker Luis Trude’s seven leading the list.
“It is a plus [to have such balanced scoring],” said Elliott, who has used a rotation of about 18 players this year. “We have a lot of guys who are capable of scoring goals. I think that’s down to the creativity and movement of the players off the ball, because we seem to have different players always being in position to score goals. Not always one guy that we play in the exact same way. So it’s good fun to watch and coach, and we’ll see if it can continue one more game.”
The Red Bulls, too, rely on a possession game with ample movement and interchange.
“It mainly comes down to our passing and movement and our mobility, moving the ball with a purpose,” said Nee, who has several players who train with the Red Bulls’ first team and reserve squad. “From a coaching standpoint, you can stand back and kind of more admire what’s going on, as opposed to being critical of what’s going on. When their moving with such flair and you’re in control of the game, the movement of the group is a constant one, and that would be sort of how we would gauge when we’re playing well.”
The prospect of end-to-end action, with beautiful buildups leading to dynamite chances, is very real, more so than in your average championship game. These teams are the NPSL’s best because their sophisticated attacks are so advanced.
And they can play some defense, too. As Elliott said of his team: “I think we have attacked a little better than we’ve defended, but I do think we’re a very solid team. I do.”
The game kicks off at 9:30 p.m. ET, as the second game in a doubleheader, following the Red Bulls’ first team’s Major League Soccer match against the New England Revolution. The Red Bulls U-23s and Chattanooga FC will follow Thierry Henry onto the Red Bull Arena field.
“That’s what these players are striving for, is to play at Red Bull Arena week in and week out,” said Nee, whose team is an extension of the Red Bulls’ academy program, a link of sorts between the youth sides and the pro teams. “If you’ve got the drive and motivation to make this your career, this is the kind of environment you want to be in week in and week out.
“If we do get a few fans to stay behind [after the MLS game], it will make for a nice way to end our season, but an experience that I hope will motivate the players during the college season to say, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to strive to play in the Red Bull first team.’ ”
That’s all well and good for Chattanooga, but it’d rather be home. It sports a passionate fan base that filled Finley Stadium for last weekend’s 4-1 semifinal romp over the Sacramento Gold, avenging a loss in the 2010 title game. Attendance was a record 8,878, but Elliott is certain more than 9,000 were on hand.
“We’re a little disappointed to be playing up there, because we played here in front of 9,000 fans that were there to see us play, not to see Thierry Henry play,” Elliott said. “We’ve really been spoiled by our home environment, and so it is exciting for, probably more than anything, the young college kids to be in Red Bull Arena. So it’s kind of bittersweet. If we can’t play at home, I think this is a fantastic alternative. We’d just rather play at home.”
Chattanooga FC, unlike the Red Bulls, is formed along traditional NPSL lines, with Elliott and his staff annually fusing together local college players, others from colleges around the Southeast, and a few older players, some of them now coaching, who still want to play at a decent level for a few months each year.
They do it right every year — the sixth-year club has had four seasons with one or no regular-season defeats — and this year’s group, Elliott says, is the best.
“I like this team more than my other teams,” said Elliott, who has coached college soccer for two decades and has experience with pro and amateur teams in the U.S. “Certainly, there is more talent than a college team, and then the chemistry and relationships between the players is stronger than a lot of the NPSL and [USL Premier Development League] teams I’ve seen and been around.”
Elliott started with Chattanooga in 2012, and his first team “was a good team as well. It was a different team. That team was a bit predictable. Very, very strong defensively, but a bit predictable in the way we went forward, and our ability to score goals was not the same as it is with this team.
“That team, even though we made the NPSL final, we were on a downward slope by the time we reached the semifinal and final. We were still winning, but we had some key injuries and a couple guys who had to leave early for school and a variety of things. We had already peaked before we got to the final four that year.”
The year’s team, he says, is peaking now. They’ve won five playoff games and carry with them eight-game winning and 12-game unbeaten streaks. Their only league loss was a 3-2 defeat to New Orleans Jesters during a four-games-in-eight-days stretch in late May.
The Brazilian Trude, a two-time NAIA All-American at William Carey College in Mississippi who just transferred to Marquette, makes things go for Chattanooga.
“He’s very creative,” Elliott said. “He’s got a wonderful touch on the ball and creativity, but he’s also an extremely hard-working player.”
Trude is among five players who have been with CFC the past three seasons. All-NPSL forward Luke Winter is in his fourth year with the club; All-NPSL goalkeeper Greg Hartley, midfielder John Carrier and forward/midfielder Michael Brooks are the others.
Also making big contributions are midfielder Niall McCabe and left back James Moore, the team leader. Winter, McCabe and Sias Reyneke each has six league goals.
They know it’s not going to be easy.
“I think 15-0 is a fantastic record,” Winter said. “But we’ve got a good record ourselves.”
Striving for perfection
The Red Bulls had won just one of four playoff games following outstanding regular seasons during their first four years in the NPSL, but the club took a big stride forward this year and has won most of its games fairly handily.
There’s tremendous talent, led by All-NPSL midfielders Manosalvas and Sean Sheridan, who scored the first goal in last weekend’s 2-0 semifinal win over Lansing United.
Manosalvas, a former Ecuador youth international who plays at Seton Hall, is a silky-skilled playmaker who’s as comfortable scoring goals as he is setting them up.
“There’s elegance in his movements,” Nee said. “He’s got the ability to dribble past people, he can finish with either foot, and he doesn’t need a lot of time and space when he gets inside the area. He’s very clinical in his finishing. It’s a very crisp shot.”
Sheridan, the Red Bulls’ captain, who plays collegiately at Villanova,”brings a lot of character to the team, character and leadership,” Nee said. He’s a holding midfielder who “wins a lot of first and second balls, probably one of the best players in the air, distribution in passing is very good. He has a lot of technical qualities and competes as well as anyone physically.”
They also depend a lot on midfielder Sean Davis, who has trained with the first team this year, and goalkeeper Mike Lansing. The supporting cast is deep and gifted.
It’s why they’re one win from perfection.
“The fact that we are unbeaten is, of course, fantastic,” Nee said. “But, really, it doesn’t alter either our mindset going into the game or the way we prepare. The way we’ve played most of this season, if we can get into our groove and our passing rhythm quickly, then I think we’re a tough opponent for anyone to play against. That’s kind of the way we’ve looked at it all season.”
Could he have envisioned such a campaign?
“That’s an ideal season, really,” Nee said. “When you start to put the group together at the beginning of the season and during your preseason, I think you get a feel for the way things are going to go, and with the quality we had in the group this year, I would have though we would have won [the North Atlantic] Conference, and then once we get into the playoffs, you’re really focusing just game-to-game.
“It’s been a great season so far, but we’re not done yet.”