Chattanooga FC exited the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in heartbreaking fashion Wednesday night.
120 minutes was not enough for USL-Championship side Birmingham Legion to best the boys in blue, but a penalty shootout ended in favor of the Alabaman franchise.
Both teams earned the spot in the Third Round with 4-1 wins in the Second Round. Chattanooga FC defeated Des Moines while Birmingham dominated a USL1 team from East Ridge, Tennessee.
But Birmingham would not dominate the team from Chattanooga.
“The character our guys showed, and the heart our guys showed, that’s really big," said CFC Head Coach Rod Underwood. "We got better,. We played in this round last year against Atlanta United and gave up a lot of goals. This time around, we were in it, and I can’t complain about it.”
The midweek showdown in Tuscaloosa saw both teams in search of their first ever fourth round berth in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
CFC exited the competition at the same stage last year after a tough away defeat to then reigning champions, Atlanta United FC from MLS.
Head coach Rod Underwood made only one change to the eleven that defeated Flower City Union on the weekend. Striker Markus Naglestad returned to the lineup after being rested for the big game.
The match proved to be perfect for the neutral football aficionado. Both teams had periods of possession, at times pinning in the other and at times waiting to spring on the counterattack. The boys in blue fought for every ball, staying toe to toe with the club from the division above.
Birmingham struck lucky in the 31st minute. Prosper Kasim floated in a searching ball that snuck into the far post, giving Jean Antoine no chance to save. The Legion led 1-0.
Proceedings opened up even further after the opening goal. Chattanooga had several standout performers. Forward Taylor Gray carried great threat on the counterattack.
Midfielder Luis Garcia Sosa won several hard tackles in the midfield. Anatolie Prepelita kept things tight in defense, and beyond the one goal conceded, Antoine dealt with everything that came his way.
The 1-0 halftime scoreline felt as though it would not be the final score.
Indeed, the boys in blue came out swinging in the second half. The push for an equalizer did leave the defense exposed at times, but the boys in blue were up for the task on both ends of the field.
Chattanooga finally pulled one back in familiar fashion. Gray was taken down in the box after some skilled dribbling. Designated penalty taker Markus Naglestad stepped up to convert, calmy sending the keeper the wrong way and rolling the ball into the net. The boys in blue were level after 68 minutes.
Despite chances continuing to fall both ways, defensive heroics kept the ball out of either net. The score was 1-1 after regulation.
Intensity continued to rise in the two 15-minute periods of extra time. Passion overcame fatigue in an intense display where both teams wanted to score to avoid leaving things to chance in a penalty shootout.
Jean Antoine made several fine saves to keep the boys in blue level. Juan Louis found the back of the net with a few minutes to go but was judged to be offside. Penalties were all that were left to split the two teams.
The penalty shootout did not go as planned. Jean Antoine made a stop, but a shot off the bar and a shot saved for the boys in blue led to defeat. The Birmingham Legion advanced with a 4-3 penalty shootout win.
“We went to penalties. And you know that’s a flip of the coin,” Head coach Rod Underwood reflected after the game. “The guys worked hard. We deserved to be that far into the game, and I have no complaints. Good on them.”
Matching Birmingham for 120 minutes was a great accomplishment for the boys in blue.
Supporters of the boys in blue, from those that made the trip down I-59 to those watching form home, all walked away with a sense of pride.
"Heartbreaking outcome but a performance we can be proud of," said CFC striker Markus Naglestad after the game. "Thank to all our unbelievable supporters who made the trip all the way down to Tuscaloosa. Means the world to us."
Although wondering what could have been, it was a display that gives hope to a very successful campaign in a still young season.
Chattanooga FC have a quick turnaround, flying north to Michigan for what will be another hotly contested affair against the Michigan Stars on Saturday, April 29th.
The boys in blue return to Fort Finley in need of your support against the Savannah Clovers on Saturday, May 6th. Tickets are on sale now at ChattanoogaFC.com/TICKETS.
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.