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Chattanooga FC ready to face challenge from USL D-III

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The next battleground for the future of lower division American soccer was identified Friday night, and it’s located along the Tennessee River.

Chattanooga FC is an undisputed success for lower league soccer. The 10th-year National Premier Soccer League club is a four-time league finalist and seven-time conference winner.

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More important, however, is CFC’s status as proof that division doesn’t have to matter if your club can bring a crowd. Chattanooga averages 4,000-plus fans, has drawn more than 18,000 fans to a single game, and boasted more than 12,000 for a friendly with Atlanta United at 20,668 capacity Finley Stadium.

If there was a club likely to control its own destiny in American soccer, it was this one. Heck, CFC’s success put the city on the map for USMNT and USWNT matches, and the club was actively pursuing a professional future. Board member Bill Nuttall admitted that CFC was being “courted by both” USL and NISA as recently as November.

Ah but that conditional if.

Enter a couple of shocking tweets. On Friday, Chattanooga FC announced that general manager Sean McDaniel was leaving the club, and that an investor from Utah had acquired the rights to put a USL D-III team in the market. Nuttall left, too. The club was not involved in the bid.

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McDaniel had no comment, other than to tell ProSoccerTalk he’ll release a statement later in the week.

Chattanooga chairman Timothy Kelly said that McDaniel and Nuttall occasionally butted heads with the rest of the club — there were “serious philosophical differences” between the parties — but left no hints that anything major was on the horizon.

“There was nothing other than we knew the philosophical rift existed,” Kelly said. “We certainly feel betrayed … but we’re relieved not to have the rift.”

Kelly said the philosophical differences were innate, and connected to how the board members viewed the club. As a microcosm, McDaniel did not hold open tryouts in 2017, in defiance of the board’s wishes to best scout local talent.

Complicating future plans for McDaniel and the club, assuming the report is true, would also be a fundamental difference of opinion on USL and its new third division USL D-III.

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“We’re big fans of the notion of an open system and promotion/relegation, and I deeply believe that the franchise system is what’s fundamentally wrong with American soccer,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to sacrifice our principles for personal gain.”

USL replied to PST in an email:

“We look forward to meeting with USL Division III ownership groups during the USL Mid-Year Meetings in Atlanta next week. Both the league and its owners are excited to bring the thrill of professional soccer to these new markets. We will provide a more formal update on USL Division III, including exciting new cities and league details, following our Mid-Year Meetings.”

McDaniel also served on the National Premier Soccer League board, and submitted his resignation on Thursday night. NPSL chairman Joe Barone spoke with PST, and said McDaniel had been less active in league matters in recent months without informing anyone on the board of any reason for his absence.

“Chattanooga is a model organization not only for the NPSL but for soccer in general in the United States,” Barone said. “The fan base and community support are what make Chattanooga, and it’s tough to replicate that with a new club whether you’re Division 4, 3, 2 or 1.”

Lower level clubs continue to seek the most attractive path toward becoming bigger players in American soccer. Peter Wilt’s departure from NISA has put the nascent league in uncertain territory, the NASL remains on hiatus, and other leagues are still negotiating the start of professional play.

USL D-III is an intriguing option for clubs due to a lower budget and entry fee, and has announced Toronto FC II, Tormenta FC (Georgia), FC Tucson, and unnamed clubs in Madison (Wisc.) and Greenville (S.C.) as founding members for 2019.

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Kelly expressed serious doubts about the chances for success of a new club in Chattanooga, and said reaction to the challenge of a second club has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“We have always been fundamentally about Chattanooga as much as we’ve been about soccer,” he said. “We’ve said we’re totally dedicated to our local market. We said we’d never leave. This is not a franchise that is going to parachute in and parachute out. We’re fundamentally in tune with Chattanooga. We’re dedicated to grassroots up, as opposed to franchise down.

“We’ve spoken to all the staff members, all the stakeholders, and the expression of support has been warm and universal,” Kelly said. “We expect we’re going to win this fight.”

Put differently, from another CFC owner:

Again assuming the reports are true, it’s a puzzling fight for USL D-III to pick as it launches for 2019. As the second-tier USL sees success for many of its club and continues prolific expansion, trying to start a third division club in a market with a decade-old fourth division club is a head scratcher unless it was possible to cherry pick CFC and drop it into its first season.

American club soccer still is the Wild West, though, and any area’s club needs to be prepared for a battle from big dollars regardless of its success. Major League Soccer is trying to expand into Detroit despite (and maybe because) NPSL side Detroit City FC boasting wild attendance figures and hosting friendlies against Venezia, FC St. Pauli, and Club Necaxa.

[ MORE: Pochettino hopeful for signings as injuries pile up, deadline looms ]

In a lot of ways it’s unsavory, but not terribly unique: The World Hockey Association of the 1970s saw all of its teams fold save the four who would join the National Hockey League. The “sport of the future” truly is here, and early adopters aren’t granted free passes to the present.

As the number of teams in the NPSL and Premier Development League continues to rise and more markets prove they can draw crowds, this is going to keep happening for some time. And upward mobility happens: The PDL’s Ottawa Fury moved into the NASL in 2014, and now plays in the USL. The NPSL’s Nashville FC and PDL’s Richmond Kickers now have entities in the USL.

Yet it doesn’t have to feel good. It’s America, and USL D-III has every reason to aim for the Chattanooga market. Why an investor would pick this particular fight, however, leaves plenty to the imagination. What’s to come from the presumably impending announcement from McDaniel in Tennessee?

DISCLAIMER: The author operates a club in the same league as Chattanooga FC.

Premier League to change VAR from December

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Premier League shareholders met in central London on Thursday and have agreed to change the way VAR is used in the PL.

Owners of all 20 PL clubs met for several hours, as they analyzed how the first few months of VAR being used in the Premier League had gone.

In a statement released by the Premier League, they confirmed that the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) is “committed to improving the consistency of decisions, speeding up processes and increasing communication to fans.”

The league added that PGMOL chief Mike Riley addressed the clubs and accepted improvement is required, with plenty of key incidents such as offside and handball decisions infuriating fans and pundits alike.

Below is a look at the key areas discussed, as small changes will come in to place starting in December.

  • Extra information will be displayed on stadium TV screens for fans. For example when “Checking Penalty” is displayed it will now say “Checking Penalty – Possible Handball.” This enhancement will be delivered in December 2019.
  • Pitch-side TV monitors will continue to be used sparingly by referees, as “ensuring the pace and tempo of Premier League football remains an important focus for clubs.” But it is expected referees will go to the TV monitors more than they have done in the opening months of the season.
  • Premier League revealed that VAR has improved the accuracy of match officials around “key match incidents” (KMI). Last season match officials achieved 82 per cent KMI accuracy. With VAR this accuracy has risen to 91 per cent this season.

Landon Donovan to manage San Diego Loyal

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Landon Donovan will become the first manager of the San Diego Loyal.

Donovan, 37, is part of the ownership group of the USL Championship side, which kicks off its inaugural season in 2020.

Speaking to Sports Illustrated, Donovan confirmed he will manage the newly-formed Southern Californian club and he will also be the VP of soccer operations for the second-tier team.

SD Loyal will hold a press conference on Thursday to officially announce Donovan’s appointment.

The MLS and USMNT legend has retired and made comebacks multiple times in recent years but his playing days are now over and he will focus on leading the USL franchise alongside Warren Smith, who previously founded Sacramento Republic FC.

Donovan has lived in San Diego in recent years and was part of the group who wanted to bring an MLS team to the city as part of a planned Soccer City complex. After that bid failed, Donovan instead put all of his energy into the USL side and he will now be the leading man on the sidelines.

His name has plenty of pull and along with the team calling San Diego home, this team will be a very popular one to play for.

Thierry Henry named Montreal Impact manager

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Thierry Henry has been named as the new manager of the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer.

Henry, 42, has signed a two-year contract to lead Montreal and has an option to extend his deal to 2022.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Speaking about his return to MLS, this time as a manager, Henry is delighted to be heading to Quebec.

“It’s an honour to coach the Montreal Impact and return to MLS,” Henry said. “It’s a league I know well, in which I had some very nice moments. To be in Quebec, in Montreal, which has an enormous multicultural heritage, it’s extraordinary. I’ve always kept an eye on the club and now I’m here.”

Henry holds his UEFA Pro licence and his previous managerial experience includes being the assistant manager for the Belgian national team before and during the 2018 World Cup and then a brief stint at his former club Monaco.

The latter didn’t go well, with Henry fired less than four months into the job and with Monaco battling relegation in Ligue 1.

Henry has also worked as a TV pundit for Sky Sports in the UK after he called time on his legendary playing career with Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona and the New York Red Bulls.

But coaching has always been his plan, and now the World Cup winner has the chance, just like his former Arsenal and France teammate Patrick Vieira, to stamp his identity on an MLS club.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the legendary French striker gets on as a head coach in MLS, but at least he knows from his playing days how the league operates and some of the logistical challenges that will face him and his team.

The Impact have missed the MLS playoffs in each of the past three seasons and parted ways with previous boss Wilmer Cabrera, who had taken over after Remi Garde’s tumultuous time in charge.

Players will certainly flock to Montreal to play for Henry, but given some of the reports about his time in charge of Monaco and how strict he was on the training ground, it will be interesting to see how Henry’s approach has developed, if at all.

Senegal, Nigeria win in African Cup qualifying

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Senegal and Nigeria started with wins on the first day of the final stage of qualifying for the 2021 African Cup of Nations on Wednesday.

Senegal was comfortable in a 2-0 victory over Republic of Congo, and Nigeria less so when it came from behind to edge Benin 2-1.

Senegal opened its qualifying campaign less than four months after losing to Algeria in the final of this year’s African Cup in Egypt. Sidy Sarr and Habibou Diallo sealed the win over Congo in Group I with first-half goals. Sadio Mane also played.

Semifinalists at this year’s African Cup, the Nigerians made a fumbling start to the decisive group stage when they went behind in the third minute at home in Uyo to Stephane Sessegnon‘s goal following a defensive error. Victor Osimhen converted a penalty on the brink of halftime and Samuel Kalu scored the winner in the second half to put three-time African champions Nigeria top of Group L.

The result provided some relief for Nigeria head coach Gernot Rohr, whose relationship with the Nigeria Football Federation has become uneasy since failing to make the African Cup final in Egypt.

Cameroon, the 2021 host, was held 0-0 at home by Cape Verde to draw another blank under new coach Toni Conceicao, the second goalless draw in two games under Conceicao. Cameroon has already qualified as host but is playing in qualifying for match practice. The Cameroonians couldn’t find the target again in their Group F opener after a 0-0 draw against Tunisia in the Portuguese coach’s first game in charge a month ago. Conceicao replaced former Netherlands international Clarence Seedorf, who was fired after Cameroon’s title defense at this year’s African Cup in Egypt ended with a round of 16 defeat by Nigeria.

The top two in each group will qualify for the 24-team finals except in Cameroon’s group, where just one other team will make it through. The qualifiers run until November next year.

African champion Algeria starts its campaign on Thursday against Zambia. Egypt plays Kenya the same day and the Pharaohs will be without Mohamed Salah for that game and Monday’s meeting with Comoros, the Egyptian Football Association said, because of an ankle injury. Salah has been wearing a protective boot on his left foot while sitting out training with Egypt.

New coach Hossam el-Badry, a former Egypt player, will take charge of his country in a competitive game for the first time against Kenya as the team moves on from the bitter disappointment of not even making the quarterfinals at their home tournament this year. That failure led to the departure of coach Javier Aguirre and the resignation of the entire EFA board.

There were also wins in Wednesday’s qualifiers for Namibia, Malawi, Sudan, Gambia, Central African Republic and Guinea-Bissau. Sudan provided the most resounding result with a 4-0 rout of 10-man Sao Tome and Principe.

Sierra Leone and Lesotho drew 1-1 in an eventful game in an empty stadium in Freetown. Sierra Leone was ordered by FIFA to play the game behind closed doors as punishment for fans misbehaving in a game against Liberia in September, when they threw objects and invaded the field.

Kwame Quee gave Sierra Leone the lead with 20 minutes to go. Thabantso Jane equalized in injury time and after both teams had a man sent off. Lesotho captain Marepe Basia was given a second yellow for his foul on George Davies in the final 10 minutes. Davies was sent off for retaliating.

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