While Maryland and Manhattan were certainly worthy opponents, the biggest test of the opening of the season was always going to be Chattanooga FC. There’s no wind and weather to effect the game like there was in Maryland, and they aren’t in a lower division team like our US Open Cup draw. It was a beautiful night in an amazing stadium for soccer.
The line-ups saw a few notable changes tonight. While he’s started our first two matches, Alioune Diakhate was not even on the bench. It was the first action we got to see of new signing, midfielder Matt Bolduc. On paper, our line-up was heavy on midfield and defense, so it was interesting to see if the tactics were more to have a strong back line and try to pick a chance if we could. On the Chattanooga side, last season’s Golden Boot winner, Markus Naglestad started on the bench, so thankfully that was one less player we hopefully had to worry about for the night.
Chattanooga knew how to put on a spectacle. The Chattahooligans, their supporters, led a processional into stadium, marching with drums and chanting. They then spent the next 45 minutes before kick-off drumming and singing. The NISA commissioner was then on hand to present Chattanooga players and coaches with their awards for their performances last year. When the teams walked out side by side, holding hands with a kids’ team, it was nice that the FCU players were into it. They were not just ignoring the kids, but they were all actively talking with them, while they made their way to the field. I’m sure it made those kids’ week, and I will never not give shout-outs to the small touches like this.
The first half certainly saw the defensive minded line-up that was predicted. What I hadn’t predicted though was how much possession Flower City would have. They were actually taking it to Chattanooga, and not just trying to play a counter-attacking game. It was also a physical game. Tackles were made strong, and well. The biggest criticism I had with FCU’s play through the first half is that they had heavy first touches. While they were definitely stronger and more attacking minded that I expected, a few passes were taken without a light touch, leading to a turnover that could have been a nice chance.
While Chattanooga had a few shots through the opening 20 minutes, our defense did a great job of standing strong. Kyle Nelson had a few times where he fought off the attacker to shepherd the ball out of bounds, a tough role to play without getting a foul or accidentally taking possession. Goalkeeper Michael Meija had a few times where a defender got a little too close for comfort to his clearances, but he was also made some good saves. In the 29th minute Chattanooga had a seeming breakaway, but Meija came way out of net to make a nice slide to steal the ball without also taking a foul. I’ve praised him in prior matches, and Stephen Elias continued to show why he impresses, as he was also all over the pitch. At times it seemed like he was playing on one wing, then he’d show up on the other, and then he’s back to shoulder an attacker to win a goal kick. In the 36th minute he took the ball down the right wing, and put it into the box for a diving punch by the Chattanooga keeper. Unfortunately on the wide open net, our follow-up didn’t have a great angle, and trickled just wide.
As the yellow cards were coming out, FCU continued their strong tackling. The home fans started getting noticeably fired up when some strong tackles by FCU were not even called a foul. It seemed like physical play was going to be the manner of the night. Through the scoreless first half, Coach Jordan Sullivan’s tactics and FCU’s physical play had really surprised a Chattanooga team that dominated its first few games.
Chattanooga spent the second half the stronger of the two teams. While possession the first half probably favored Flower City, the first fifteen minutes of the second half were almost all Chattanooga. Their possession seemed to be picking holes in our defense, and it seemed as if it would only be a matter of time before they found their way through, unless FCU found the strength they’d had in back the first half. Back to back corners in the 60th minute tested FCU, and they continued to hold off the attacks, even though they couldn’t string together an attack of their own.
Unfortunately, the end of the clean sheet finally came after a 69th minute foul in the FCU box. As the Chattanooga attacker drove in, Nelson took him down to the right of goal. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation and the ref immediately pointed to the spot for a penalty kick. While Meija guessed correctly with his dive, Chattanooga’s Captain Richard Dixon put it perfectly into the bottom left corner.
Flower City Union didn’t just take the goal and lie down. They immediately subbed on Malik Stewart as Forward and Logan Lee as Midfielder, trying to go more attacking, in a half that was pretty much all Chattanooga. It wasn’t until the 83rd minute that FCU really had some sustained possession. That minute saw a large amount of possession and completed passes, circling around the pitch, unfortunately it just sorta fizzled out by losing the ball without any real attempt at goal. It sure seemed from my point of view that the dying minutes of the game saw a shot blocked in the box by a Chattanooga handball, but there was no protesting by FCU players, so it may have been nothing or incidental.
The second half saw a much less physical game, and a lot more of Chattanooga possession, neither of which benefited Flower City Union. Prior to the match, looking at stats and history, we were a large underdog. While 1-0 isn’t the scoreline we wanted, it’s definitely respectable and every player on the field should be commended for their hard work. They’re only going to get better, and soon they’ll be putting the results on the board.
Flower City Union at Finley Stadium
Weather: Clear, calm, 60 degrees
Chattanooga goal: Richard Dixon 70′
Referee: Brendan Dunavant
AR1: Rigoberto Perez
AR2: Dan Benson
4th: Mason Moore