CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Columbus, Washington, Carson … Chattanooga?
The U.S. Soccer Federation broke from standard scheduling practices by placing Friday’s men’s friendly against Jamaica in a city off the sport’s beaten path. The women have played at 20,000-seat Finley Stadium. The men have visited Tennessee in recent years, two hours up the road in Nashville, but never in the southeastern corner of the Volunteer State.
So why did the USSF do it? To introduce the team to a different city.
The winter training camp typically features friendlies at the site of the month-long workouts, StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. Last year’s matches, however, drew poorly. So this year the Americans played Serbia in San Diego last Sunday before an announced crowd of 20,000, then fly to Atlanta and bused two hours north to Nooga.
“I think it’s important for the game. I think it’s important for what we are about as a country,” captain Michael Bradley said. “The other reality is that it had become pretty clear we had worn out our welcome playing games in January at StubHub Center.
“It’s always that balance between field and crowd and atmosphere and competitive advantage, which in January doesn’t come as much into play. It’s important to get to places like Chattanooga that have shown they support their team in a big way. It’s always special to come here because you see right away what it means to the people.”
As of Thursday afternoon, ticket sales had surpassed 16,000.
Chattanooga fields a team in the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League. Founded in 2009, Chattanooga FC averages in the thousands, a notable achievement for a small operation. In 2015, more than 18,000 turned out for a match. The club is bracing for a good crowd next Saturday, when MLS expansion Atlanta United visits Finley to face the local squad in a preseason friendly.
Last month, Chattanooga FC announced a partnership with Bundesliga side Wolfsburg. The teams share a sponsor, Volkswagen, which is based in Wolfsburg and operates a plant in the Tennessee city.
For the USSF, scheduling a match in Chattanooga meant agreeing to play on artificial turf. The last time the men played a home friendly on a synthetic surface was 1994 against Russia at the Kingdome in Seattle. (They’ve played on home turf in the Gold Cup, organized by CONCACAF.)
At times, the USSF has placed temporary grass over artificial ground, but that’s an expensive process that requires large ticket sales to help offset the cost.
“In this country, playing on artificial fields is all part of that exercise,” said U.S. Coach Bruce Arena, who was hired after the decision to play in Chattanooga was reached. “I don’t think it’s the worst thing that we do a game this time of the year on an artificial field, knowing that sometimes fields around the country are not in the best of shape. You are very limited in your markets. … This is one of the options. U.S. Soccer has had great experience here and wanted to come back. All things being equal, it’s okay.”
Faded football lines remain visible — UT Chattanooga plays at Finley — but the U.S. players said the quality of the turf is good. A new surface was installed in 2015.
“Grass is always preferred,” midfielder Dax McCarty said, “but this turf is good turf and, because of the [rainy] weather in L.A., it’s almost better than some of the grass fields we were on.”
Arena will make several lineup changes from the Serbia match, inserting, among others, goalkeeper Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls), left back Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna, Mexico) and center back Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas). With Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan no longer in camp, “we’ll have a different look in the midfield with a number of different players,” Arena said.
Robles will earn his third cap, Villafaña his second and Zimmerman his first.
Villafaña, Chris Pontius and Sebastian Lletget debuted Friday with second-half appearances. Lletget, Jones’s replacement at halftime, seems likely to start against Jamaica.
McCarty is also expected to play after arriving late to camp (honeymoon) and remaining on the bench Friday.
After an underwhelming performance against Serbia, “I’d like to see everything a little bit better – our speed of play, our defending rock solid, a little more balance in our attack and obviously creating a few more good chances,” Arena said. “We’re going to see some other players, as well.”
If all of those things happen, he added, “That would make for a pretty good night.”
Do the many players on the periphery need to make an impression?
“I want to make an impression,” Pontius said. “I wouldn’t say for any of us that it’s a last chance. Am I going to go out of my way and do something that is unnecessary? No. I am going to play the same way I’ve always played and make the decisions that come to me in the game. I’m not going to change my game just to impress Bruce.”
The end of camp, though, is not lost on the secondary players seeking to impress the boss.
“Absolutely. That is a realistic and responsible take,” McCarty said of the need to leave a mark. “For the guys who are established, it was a good opportunity to get fit for the season and show Bruce what they’re all about. Now for the newer guys, it’s always an opportunity to prove yourself on the international level. Opportunities for myself and a few other guys in camp, they don’t come around very often. … If you have a good game, you hope it parlays into the bigger games in the future.”
Arena said about half of the 26 or so players summoned for the World Cup qualifiers late next month will come from the group that passed through winter camp. Most of those slots seem set: Bradley, Kljestan, Jones, Jozy Altidore, Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, Jordan Morris, Darlington Nagbe, Steve Birnbaum and others.
TV coverage on FS1, UniMas and Univision Deportes will begin at 7 p.m. ET, but kickoff won’t occur until about 7:30. Live streams are available on Fox Sports Go, Univision Now, foxsoccer2go.com and univisiondeportes.com.
Landon Donovan has joined the Fox broadcast team of John Strong and Stuart Holden.
When Donovan and Co. arrived at the team hotel Thursday for their interview session with the coach, Arena smiled and said, “I told ya, Donovan is back! That’s the story. He’s back playing. Scoop.”
Game-time weather outlook: 39 degrees, light wind, clear skies.
Jamaica arrived in Chattanooga with a 20-man squad: seven from MLS, two from the USL, nine from the domestic league and two unattached. Four have more than 10 caps, led by midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson’s 61.
The MLSers are Watson (New England), Philadelphia goalkeeper Andre Blake, New York Red Bulls defender Kemar Lawrence, Portland defender Alvas Powell, Seattle defender Oniel Fisher, Real Salt Lake midfielder Omar Holness and Atlanta forward Romario Williams.
Asked how he has changed after a 10-year gap between national team jobs, Arena began by saying: “I don’t jump as high as I did 10 years ago. I used to dunk a basketball 10 years ago. And now I can’t even touch the net.”
According to multiple sources close to Arena’s vertical leap, he has never dunked a basketball. The net-touching is also unverified.
With a serious tone, he added: “Experience in 10 years is a lot, in coaching or anything else. You have a better feel for the game, for dealing with the players, understanding the organization and having the ability to sit back and look and reflect on things you’ve experienced. Ten years later, you should be better in all areas.”