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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.

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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.

[ 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.

MLS weekend preview: Two big rivalries, and Atlanta meets DC

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It’s been a fun midweek for Major League Soccer, one that doesn’t even reach its conclusion until Thursday’s doubleheader ends with Orlando City and Portland meeting in Oregon.

But looking ahead to the weekend brings plenty more worthy of anticipation, beginning with Friday’s “El Trafico.”

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Bob Bradley and LAFC have been threatening to destroy the record books, driven by Carlos Vela’s tremendous play. The Mexican 30-year-old has 19 goals and eight assists before the calendar hits August.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t too impressed, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s Galaxy are 12 points behind the black and gold. They’d be thrilled to climb into second with a Friday win and a statement of local sway (especially after losing the Cali Clasico to San Jose earlier this month).

A full docket on Saturday is followed by a quadruple header of sorts on Sunday, with four matches kicking off between 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. ET. Two of them are beauties.

DC United and Atlanta United meet in what could be an Eastern Conference Final preview. Both are within a win Sunday and match-in-hand of holding the East in the palm of its hand, but neither has been playing particularly well (at least until the Five Stripes waxed Houston 5-0 on Wednesday).

DC plays Cincinnati on Thursday and faces a quicker turnaround than Atlanta. If the Black-and-Red can manage a win over the expansion side, it can will enter the Five Stripes’ match-up in second.

Finally, Sunday concludes with a Cascadia Cup meeting between Portland and Seattle in Washington.

So far, Vancouver leads the table with four points, but has played thrice. Seattle has the same amount of points but has played one fewer game.

Portland has only played one Cup match falling 1-0 in Vancouver, and has the advantage of playing its final two matches at home.

But first is this meeting with Seattle. The Sounders sit second in the West and will love the idea of keeping the Timbers two results back of a playoff spot (albeit with multiple matches-in-hand on the field).

Bruce explains taking wheel at wobbly Newcastle United

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Steve Bruce didn’t have it in him to turn down his boyhood club again.

The well-traveled manager and Manchester United legend has taken the reins at combustible Newcastle United after Rafa Benitez walked away from the club this summer.

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Bruce was Sheffield Wednesday manager when that happened, but simply could not resist the lure of managing at St. James’ Park.

He’s also quite confident in his abilities. From The Chronicle:

“I know in some people’s eyes, I’m not Rafa and I know there are big shoes to fill but believe me, I’ll give it everything I possibly can and hopefully I prove the doubters wrong.”

Bruce certainly does not have Benitez’s resume, but has had success in lower leagues. He’s led Birmingham City and Hull City to a pair of promotions each.

If Newcastle backs him as rumored, he may be able to have one of his better Premier League seasons, but his being backed is a wobbly proposition at best (The club is being linked with monster Hoffenheim forward Joelinton).

Bruce knows things have been largely poor at Newcastle United under owner Mike Ashley, and that the club could be taken over by new owners with different ambitions for their manager’s position.

But, again, this is the club he’s supported since he was a boy.

“As I said the easy thing would to have been to say no but I just hope that people show the respect which you obviously only gain by getting results and doing the job, but hopefully that will go hand in hand.”

It’s another Zlatan day, as Galaxy star rips Vela, talks Area 51

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic took a shot at his rivals and his league in one fell swoop.

Perhaps Major League Soccer’s hit is down to proximity and not intent, but the LA Galaxy star certainly didn’t disguise his feelings when asked whether LAFC star Carlos Vela is the best player in the league.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Vela, 30, has lit MLS on fire to the tune of 19 goals and eight assists in 19 matches, driving the second-year squad to the top of the Western Conference.

Zlatan and the Galaxy’s seasons have trailed behind, relatively speaking. The third-place Galaxy are 12 points behind LAFC, with Ibrahimovic contributing 13 goals and three assists in three fewer games.

“29, he’s playing in MLS and he’s in his prime. When I was 29, where was I?”

Herculez Gomez replies that Ibrahimovic was in Europe (Vela turned 30 in March. At 29, Ibrahimovic scored 21 goals in 41 appearances for AC Milan, on loan from Barcelona. At 30, he scored 35 in 44 for Milan).

“Big difference, exactly.”

Vela, for what it’s worth, spent 2005-17 in Europe. Anyway, here is the exchange.

But wait, there’s more.

Zlatan was also quizzed on Area 51 while in a scrum. For those who may not know, Area 51 is a classified United States military facility in Nevada which has long been speculated as the home of extraterrestrial testing and scientific experimentation.

He doesn’t need to worry about going there, because he has his own Area 51 and there is only one Zlatan.

Who will make Ballon d’Or final three?

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When Luka Modric won the Ballon d’Or last summer, marking the first victor neither named Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo since 2007, it threatened to signal a new era for the trophy in more ways than one.

Ronaldo didn’t win the honors, finishing second, but Messi was inexplicably left off the final ballot altogether.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Could this be the year that neither makes the top three? Probably not, but it could be the first time Ronaldo fails to make the list since Barca swept the honors Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi in 2010.

So while most of us are not thinking of the award right now, Ronaldo has it on his brain. It’s no surprise that Marca, known for its backing of Real Madrid royalty, has thrown his name in the mix as a “favorite” given his scudetto with Juventus. That it mentions his performance in the UEFA Nations League is a little goofy — it was a two-match summer — but such is life.

Ronaldo and Messi are deadlocked on five Ballons d’Or, the most ever, and Messi’s year was superior to his longtime rival. Both won their leagues and Messi did not claim domestic honors at the Copa America — in fact he was not his phenomenal self — but Messi scored 12 goals in 10 Champions League appearances before Liverpool stunned Barcelona prior to the final (Ronaldo’s Juve lost to Ajax).

Marca proffers this “I don’t care but obviously I very much care” from CR7:

“I don’t live with an obsession about awards,” Ronaldo explained. “My numbers don’t lie, this year I’ve won three titles and I’ve been good in the Nations League. What else can I do?”

Ronaldo, it should be noted, was still incredible last season. He scored all three goals as Juventus erased a 2-0 first leg deficit in the UCL Round of 16 versus old rivals Atletico Madrid, then scored in both legs of the side’s exit via Ajax. And he likely would’ve won the top scorer’s prize in Italy had he not missed six matches through injury and rest.

Messi again breached the half-century mark in goals, scoring 51 times in all competitions for Barcelona. He chipped in 22 assists and also missed six matches between the UCL and La Liga.

Are there three players who could surpass both to make a new final three?

It would be stunning if Liverpool and Netherlands center back Virgil Van Dijk was kept off the top three, while Sadio Mane may have a Champions League crown and Africa Cup of Nations victory. And you can follow the Luka Modric logic to a land where treble- and Nations League-winning Bernardo Silva is in the discussion (Raheem Sterling was also great).

Kylian Mbappe had probably the best-looking season on Earth, scoring 39 times with 17 assists in 43 matches and navigating the attention that came with Neymar’s long-term absence by shouldering the burden to great success. We made the argument that his 19 goals and six assists in 23 Neymar-free matches is one of the prime reasons he’s be worth almost any transfer fee.

Also remember that the odds of the captains of international teams having enough ballots without Ronaldo and/or Messi named is very difficult to imagine.

Still, Messi, Mbappe, and Van Dijk seems like the final three to us. What do you think?