Chattanooga FC started the preseason with a statement 3-3 draw against MLS club Atlanta United FC. It was a beautiful January afternoon as a crowd of 7,513 watched goals from Markus Naglestad (2) and Alex McGrath earn a share of the spoils with the visiting club from two divisions above.
This was not the first meeting of the two clubs that have a surprisingly intertwined history. Atlanta United FC’s first ever match was played against Chattanooga FC at Finley Stadium in 2017. The two sides met again in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup as Atlanta ended Chattanooga’s cup run. The boys in blue sought a more favorable result this time around.
Head coach Rod Underwood unveiled his first starting eleven of the 2023 season with some familiar faces and some exciting new signings. Three returners led the attack, with Alex Jaimes and Dalton’s Damian Rodriguez starting either side of last season’s golden ball winner Markus Naglestad. Captain Richard Dixon anchored the midfield with returner Alex McGrath and new signing Mutaya Mwape. CFC familiars Colin Stripling and Ethan Koren started at the center of the defense, flanked by new signings Joseph Perez and trialist J. So at fullback. Finally, new signing and 2022 golden glove winner Jean Antoine deputized between the sticks.
Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda did not hold back in his selection. With the exception of a few injuries, Atlanta fielded its strongest eleven, not wanting to allow an upset in the preseason.
Anticipation for the game was high as supporters from both clubs filled the stands at Finley Stadium. Atlanta was on the front foot earlier, but the hometown boys in blue quickly displayed that they were not to be underestimated.
Chattanooga FC scored early often last season and had no intention of letting Atlanta escape the trend. In the 8th minute, Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan spilled the ball as he attempted to prevent a corner. Hard pressing Alex Jaimes was first to the ball, squaring it to Markus Naglestad who had only to aim past a few defenders into an open net. The boys in blue were in front, 1-0.
Just a few minutes later, Chattanooga conceded a penalty. Araújo of Atlanta converted to bring the score to 1-1 with 11 minutes on the clock.
Atlanta scored again in the 20th minute. A lack of communication in the Chattanooga defense let the ball slip past a rushing Jean Antoine, leaving the goal open for Atlanta’s Chol to score.
The boys in blue worked a great goal to level in the 28th minute. Damien Rodriguez beat his man on the outside, drove to the edge of the box, and squared in a cross. The ball fell to Mutaya Mwape, who saw his shot blocked- but Markus Naglestad was on hand to take down the rebound, floor a defender, and slide it past Brad Guzan, bringing the score level again.
A high Atlanta press forced an error out of the Chattanooga defense in the 42nd minute as Atlanta’s Araújo won the ball in the box and slotted home to put his side ahead 3-2.
The boys in blue would not accept a halftime deficit. Damian Rodriguez showed some fancy footwork on the right flank, saucing several defenders and advancing the ball before picking out Alex McGrath for a first-time finish, bringing the game level at 3-3 just before the interval.
Both teams rotated heavily for the second half, bringing on a variety of academy players, trialists, and other outside of the first eleven. The two sets of players traded blows, but the damage was all done in the first half. Chattanooga keeper Jon Burke made several fine saves before the ninety minutes elapsed and the game drew to a close at 3-3.
The result sets the tone for an exciting season for Chattanooga FC. Coach Rod Underwood was pleased with the result and the direction it sets for the team this year. “Look- we’ve been training for a short period of time, a lot of guys, all the players except two that came on in the second half were all trialists, so they’ve just been with us for a couple of weeks, and we’ve just been training and teaching them how we want to play. I feel good for the guys… Today’s game is really important for our club and really important for our players to just give them belief.”
Markus Naglestad was feeling great after scoring two goals for the home team. “You love to play against the best competition, so playing against a team like that with superstars at this level, it’s a lot of fun. That’s two goals I’ll take with me, and I’ll remember for a very long time.”
Ultimately, it was a dream result for the Chattanooga team that still has much to look forward to this year- a result that will stick with the team and Rod Underwood for a while. “I’m still in disbelief, I’ll be honest. As a kid you have dreams, but you don’t think those dreams are going to come true... I grew up in Atlanta. I’m from Atlanta, I’ve traveled the world with football. I’m always in awe when I get to play against them.”
Chattanooga FC still has plenty of work to do behind closed doors before the NISA season begins, but there will be more friendlies open to the public. The first of those is back at Fort Finley on March 4th as the boys in blue host One Knoxville SC.
About Chattanooga Football Club
Chattanooga Football Club was founded in 2009. The CFC Men's team competes in the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), which is in the third division of professional soccer. The CFC Women's team is a summer amateur team that competes in the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL). Chattanooga Football Club became the first soccer club to offer true ownership to the fans in 2019 with 3,200+ investors from Chattanooga, all 50 states, and 31 countries. CFC plays all home games in Finley Stadium in Chattanooga.