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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.

USWNT opens Olympic qualifying with win over Haiti

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The USWNT was rusty, that much was clear. Vlatko Andonovski still made sure they took care of business.

Four different goalscorers delivered a 4-0 victory over Haiti to begin CONCACAF Olympic qualification, putting the United States in front of Group A early. Lynn Williams picked up a goal and assist, proving useful on an otherwise sputtery evening for Vlatko Andonovski’s attack.

Just 78 seconds into the game, Williams charged down the right flank and crossed to Christen Press at the far post for the opening goal. Williams’ assist came without the use of her left shoe which she lost while holding off a defender for the bobbling ball.

Despite the early lead, the United States seemed somewhat sluggish as Haiti built themselves into the match. There were few chances on net after the opening goal through the half-hour mark.

Haiti nearly caught the U.S. napping on a corner as the ball found the back of the net on 20 minutes, but the goal was somehow ruled out. It appeared to be for offside, but since it’s impossible to be offside from a corner, there must have been another reason for the official ruling. Nonetheless, it was a clear sign for the USWNT that they needed to pick up the level of play.

The U.S. continued to struggle after halftime, creating very little in front of net. There was a half-chance for Lloyd near the penalty spot but a quality tackle by Kethna Louis put that to bed. Then finally they put the game to bed on a corner, not coincidentally coming just five minutes after Megan Rapinoe entered the fray. Rapinoe delivered a corner to the doorstep where Williams headed in well under pressure, moving her upper body away from goal against the motion of her lower body to reach the delivery.

Another Andonovski substitute paid dividends however as Lindsey Horan scored, again coming off a corner. They played it short and Horan headed from a significant distance out, the ball squirting past the goalkeeper Kerly Theus and Louis who tried to clear off the line. It was clear that Haiti had begun to tire and the USWNT was taking advantage. Up front, Carli Lloyd had a poor game, unable to get involved in attacking play, but she found the scoresheet in stoppage time, bagging a header off a Rapinoe cross in the 93rd minute to finish out the scoring.

Emily Sonnett replaced Kelley O’Hara with 10 minutes to go for Andonovski’s final change, and the USWNT saw the rest of the match out. They have two matches remaining before the knockout stage, set to take on Panama on Friday before the group stage finale against Costa Rica on February 3. The top two teams in the group reach the knockout phase with the semifinals to begin on February 7.

Report: Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through injury

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Chelsea has so far come up empty in its search for a striker, so desperate times may call for desperate measures.

Tammy Abraham, who has been a revelation this season with 13 Premier League goals, went down with an ankle injury late in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal last weekend. The club has tried desperately to find a striker before the Friday transfer window closes, and while the Blues have been linked with Edinson Cavani and Krzysztof Piatek they so far have not had any success in finding a replacement.

Therefore, according to Matt Law of The Telegraph, Chelsea may ask Abraham to play through his injury against Leicester City this weekend. The match is a vital one as Chelsea, sitting fourth in the Premier League table, looks to put separation between themselves and Manchester United while also chasing the third-placed Foxes who sit eight points clear.

The thinking appears to be that Chelsea has a 16-day break between the Leicester City match and their subsequent game against Manchester United in mid-February thanks to the Premier League’s two-week break at the start of the month.

Earlier this month, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted regret for not resting a banged up Marcus Rashford, choosing instead to bring him off the bench in an FA Cup match against Wolves. Reports after the match confirmed that Rashford was carrying a single stress fracture in his back at the time of the appearance, and he was hauled off 16 minutes later with scans after the match showing his appearance against Wolves worsened the injury. He now he faces two to three months on the sidelines.

Abraham has also slowed of late after being so heavily used this season. The 22-year-old has logged a massive 2,359 minutes across all competitions this season, including 1,843 out of a possible 2,160 in Premier League play. Abraham scored his first 11 Premier League goals in his first 14 matches of the season, but has just three goals in the last 10 games.

Chelsea has Michy Batshuayi as a natural replacement for Abraham up top, but Frank Lampard has used him as solely a bench option the entirety of this season. Batshuayi has made 14 Premier League appearances this season, but has logged just 138 minutes across those matches. When used as a starter in cup action, Batshuayi has four goals in four domestic cup starts. Olivier Giroud is also on the roster, having made just five Premier League appearances this season.

Ed Woodward’s house attacked by Man United fans with flares

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Manchester United has been unable to reclaim the glory of the Sir Alex Ferguson days, and that has Red Devils fans up in arms. CEO Ed Woodward has taken much of the heat, with the executive unable to prevent the squad from degrading in quality and the team consequently has been unable to consistenly challenge for a top-four place, with his financial background not exactly a fit for his player recruitment position.

Some fans seem to have taken their frustration way too far.

A video emerged on social media claiming to show fans shooting flares at Woodward’s private residence, and reports from Sky Sports and The Daily Mirror corroborated that claim. The club then issued a statement condemning the incident.

“Manchester United Football Club have tonight been made aware of the incident outside the home of one of our employees.”We know that the football world will unite behind us as we work with Greater Manchester Police to identify the perpetrators of this unwarranted attack. Anybody found guilty of a criminal offense, or found to be trespassing on this property, will be banned for life by the club and may face prosecution. Fans expressing opinion is one thing, criminal damage and intent to endanger life is another. There is simply no excuse for this.”

The Sky Sports report claims that neither Woodward nor any of his family – particularly his wife and two children – were present in the home at the time of the attack. The Daily Mirror claims upwards of 20 or 30 fans were part of the attack on the house, with the caption “Ed Woodward’s gonna die” with three red circle emojis all in a Snapchat banner. Sky Sports also reports that red paint was sprayed on the gates of the home.

There are also reports of sickening chants during the recent FA Cup win over Tranmere Rovers, with fans singing about burning Woodward and the club owner Malcom Glazer in a bonfire.

Manchester United has reportedly looked to hire a Director of Football in recent months, but has so far stuck with Woodward as the head of recruitment. The squad has

PL Preview: West Ham v. Liverpool

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  • Liverpool has won 30 of its last 31 Premier League fixtures
  • West Ham is winless in its last 6 PL games against Liverpool
  • The Hammers have just 11 points at home this season, joint-low in the PL

Liverpool can go an obscene 19 points clear at the top of the Premier League table with a win over West Ham on Wednesday, with kickoff from London Stadium at 2:45 p.m. ET live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Reds will be without Sadio Mane who pulled up in the first half of the win over Wolves. The news was positive, but still the argument could easily be made that Mane is the most important player in the Liverpool lineup, and replacing him will give Jurgen Klopp a headache. He could start Divock Origi on the wing in a direct replacement, but Origi is a striker by nature and would make things narrow on the left flank. He could also move Salah to the left and insert Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, but there’s no guarantee that the Swiss international will be fit enough to play.

Still, Liverpool will be massive favorites to build on its winning streak against a West Ham side limping into the match. The Hammers are vulnerable with a long injury list of their own, with just one win since the festive period. Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Jack Wilshere are the most significant of the injured West Ham army, but certainly not the only ones. By the most recent reports, five players will miss the match with another two to be assessed before the match.

The Hammers are only out of the relegation zone thanks to goal differential, and with a brutal upcoming fixture slate that includes another against Liverpool plus games against Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Wolves, and Chelsea through the end of March, West Ham will have to scrap for every point available.

Injuries/suspensions

West Ham: OUT – Ryan Fredericks (hamstring), Felipe Anderson (back), Andriy Yarmolenko (thigh), Arthur Masuaku (knee), Jack Wilshere (groin). QUESTIONABLE – Robert Snodgrass (knee), Lukasz Fabianski (thigh).

Liverpool: OUT – Sadio Mane (thigh muscle), James Milner (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (ACL). QUESTIONABLE – Xherdan Shaqiri (calf).


Probable lineups

West Ham: Randolph; Cresswell, Ogbonna, Diop, Zabaleta; Snodgrass, Noble, Rice, Antonio; Lanzini, Haller.

Liverpool: Alisson; Robertson, Gomez, van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Origi, Firmino, Salah.


What they’re saying

West Ham manager on being huge underdogs: “Everybody gets the chance to throw a punch at some point along the line, and sometimes you can get a lucky one. I’ve never gone into any game not expecting to win. Quite often, you don’t always win, but I really do expect the players to go out there, put a show on, and try and win. If that’s won by a set-piece, a flukey goal, I wouldn’t be bothered. That’s been my attitude throughout my whole career: I want to win. We’ll do everything we can to get points where we can.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on how West Ham will play: “It will be a rather defensive line-up [from West Ham]. If it’s four in the back or five in the back, I don’t know, but we have to be ready for a big fight. They want to strike back, they have a tough program coming up, everybody knows that. They have no points to waste, no time to waste.”


Prediction:

Liverpool is without Sadio Mane, and that’s notable in any Premier League match, but against West Ham it shouldn’t matter. The Reds have been utterly unbeatable defensively, and against a West Ham side missing Felipe Anderson, Jack Wilshere, and Arthur Masuaku plus a banged up Robert Snodgrass, an eighth clean sheet in the last nine matches is likely. The Reds put on a clinic in a comprehensive 3-0 victory.