Last year this same fixture featured a Chattanooga team that had just made history by being the first NPSL team to defeat a professional side of any level in the US Open Cup, besting the Wilmington Hammerheads 3-1 in the 2nd Round. Hard reality set in when Eric Wynalda brought the Silverbacks into town and administered a 5-0 beating to CFC.
This year’s results are much different. The fine line that separated the two teams last year was even finer, and at times you couldn’t tell which side was in the second tier of American soccer and which was in the fourth.
Surprises in the starting lineup of Chattanooga, as Luke Winter and Luis Trude started on the bench. Bill Elliott’s strategy was to conserve their legs (in addition to league and cup play, Chattanooga are also playing in the National Amateur Championship Tournament this weekend) and bring them in late should the score be close. It was a practical plan, and it nearly paid off.
For the first 15 minutes, Chattanooga did in fact look like the professional side; playing patient possession soccer while Atlanta played long balls over the top. Atlanta settled down quickly and began to control things for about 20 minutes. The only thing that separated the sides in terms of quality was speed, particularly that of Atlanta’s Jaime Chavez, who caused all sorts of trouble making runs down the left wing.
With ten minutes left in the first half, Chattanooga took complete control. Sustained pressure, several shots, including a side volley at point blank range by Jose Ferraz that, had it been struck just a bit more sweetly, would surely have been the first goal of the match.
The second half started with Atlanta firmly in control, unlucky not to score on more than one occasion. As the half went on, Chattanooga once again took control, and when Winter and Trude came on, you could start to believe a major upset was in the making.
Then in the 86th minute, the Cinderella story seemed to be coming true. A long ball from Ferraz was dummied onto Winter, who struck it first time from sixteen yards out, and the front office team began to mentally make plans to fit a trip to Red Bull Arena into their already busy fixture list.
But fate, and referee Guido Gonzalez, Jr., stepped in to change the evening from a moment of history to yet another close game between seemingly mismatched teams. Having let play go on relatively uninterrupted for most of the match, Gonzalez called a penalty in the 89th minute on what looked like a good tackle in the box. Shaka Bangura made no mistake from the spot and overtime was in play.
Yet even in overtime Chattanooga came agonizingly close on three occasions, including a header off the crossbar and a shot into the side netting that everyone at Finlay Stadium thought, briefly, was the go ahead goal.
But in the end it was Jaime Chavez scoring from the right side of the penalty area with a perfectly executed half-volley that beat Gregory Hartley to the near side.
Final: Atlanta 2, Chattanooga 1.
Silverbacks coach Gary Smith was highly complimentary to both the Chattanooga players and coach Bill Elliott. “In all honesty, I felt they were the better team for the vast majority of the game. They had a lot of great chances that on another day could have been the end of us. We managed to scrape through by the skin of our teeth.”