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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.

[ MORE: USL’s Cincy reportedly to add Adi, Alashe ]

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.

[ MORE: Shipp leads Seattle by NYC ]

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.

[ MORE: Mitrovic in, Rondon out at NUFC? ]

“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.

[ MORE: Simeone bidding on Simeone? ]

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.

Kaku gets 3 matches for booting ball into crowd, injuring spectator

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The struggling New York Red Bulls got a major let-off Wednesday with the news that Kaku would only be suspended two more matches for blasting a ball into a group of fans.

It’s a total of three matches away from the Red Bulls after the incident, which occurred against Sporting KC on April 14.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby recap ]

Someone must have convinced the league that Kaku’s intent was to smash the ball into the advertising boards and not the fans, and injuring a spectator certainly could’ve carried a much longer suspension than three matches.

Kaku already missed a match against New England and will sit out matches against FC Cincinnati and the LA Galaxy.

The 24-year-old midfielder, thrice capped by Paraguay, has seven goals and 14 assists during little more than a season with RBNY. The Red Bulls have started the season 1W-4L-2T.

Solskjaer: Man City “had too much for” Manchester United

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Manchester United has spent a lot of money on players, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says the talent on show at Old Trafford is nothing compared to rivals Manchester City.

What else could he say after his rivals outclassed him 2-0 on Wednesday, a club which wasn’t even in the same league — physically and metaphorically — for half of his tenure as a player for Manchester United?

[ MORE: Manchester Derby recap | 4 things ]

“They had too much for us,” Solskjaer said after the loss. “They are the best team in the country, they have set the standard in the last two seasons and I don’t know how many points they’ve taken. What Pep Guardiola has done with his players is remarkable and we are so close to it in the vicinity so we feel it every day.”

This was a different loss than the lackluster 4-0 blowout at the hands of Everton on Sunday, as United definitely worked hard but had little to offer in attack aside from a few choice Paul Pogba long balls and some wayward finishing from an industrious Jesse Lingard.

“There is a difference in quality,” Solskjaer said in another interview. “That is why they are top and we are where we are. Living in Manchester we cannot be happy with that. It is up to us to close that gap and overtake them.”

[ MORE: Pep reacts | Sane with NBCSN crew ]

We bet every one those words felt like broken glass climbing out of Solskjaer’s throat.

It’s going to take a squad revolution and then time to settle into a new reality. United is probably at least another full season from contending with City, even given last season’s runner-up finish.

And that has to be weird for a manager who was used to seeing the noisy neighbors stationed in the Championship. Solskjaer knows he has a lot of work to do at Old Trafford. Will his bosses let him do it?

I understand Pep using me off the bench, says super sub Sane

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Leroy Sane added a second 10-goal season to his Premier League resume on Wednesday when Man City beat Manchester United 2-0 at Old Trafford.

That he did so in about 650 less minutes says something about his growth and patience as Pep Guardiola has opted to focus on other options in attack.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby recap | 4 things ]

“The mood is obviously you want to play every game but in this squad it’s sometimes normal that you can sit on the bench,” Sane said in a post-match pitch-side talk with the NBCSN crew.

“It’s why I’m not really disappointed. I think in my own head to work harder and stay focused. On the pitch there are really good players playing good. I appreciate it, I enjoy it, and I can learn from this.”

Arlo White asked Sterling whether he believes City are the favorites to win the Premier League title. Liverpool is a point behind City, but has two of its three remaining matches at home compared to City’s one.

“It’s hard to say,” Sane said. “There’s a lot of pressure from Liverpool, but we stay focused on game to game. We have it in our own hands, so just stay focused, and try to win the last three games.”

Pep urges increased focus after Man City keeps PL title control

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Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are officially over their UEFA Champions League exit, and now salivating at the idea of defending their Premier League crown following a 2-0 defeat of Manchester United on Wednesday.

And the manager is now demanding that his players get laser-focused on the game-by-game.

[ MORE: Recap | 3, er, 4 things ]

“I told the players don’t read tomorrow, don’t watch the television, just rest and sleep a lot and go in there against Burnley,” Guardiola said.

The Man City boss says the side’s early second half changes, taking off Fernandinho to move in Leroy Sane and slot Ilkay Gundogan a bit deeper made the difference from 0-0 to 2-0.

“We knew without Romelu Lukaku they would try more runs in behind,” he said. “The chances we lost came from us losing simple balls in the middle and we changed things in the second half, with Ilkay Gundogan in the middle and with Leroy Sane on we were more dynamic.”

And Guardiola tried to find the words to explain how either Man City or Liverpool will walk away from this season at second place in the league despite being two of the greatest sides ever produced by England.

“Both teams deserve the title, but it can be just one,” Guardiola said. “The team that is going to lose cannot have regrets because they have given everything. Normally with this kind of victory you can it enjoy it the most but now we have to be calm. We have to be in the right phase.”