When you kept your eyes on the field and allowed the sound of rival supporter groups to engulf you, it did not feel like amateur soccer. For those that remained after the pros left the pitch, they witnessed a match that felt truly meaningful. **
Some within the US soccer community questioned whether the National Premier Soccer League Championship match would be served well as the second billing at Red Bull Arena. Would any of those 20,000 fans in attendance for the Major League Soccer match between the New York Red Bulls and the New England Revolution spend an additional three hours to watch a match from the fourth-tier of the US Soccer pyramid? Those who remained got a thrilling match and saw a rare occurrence in the New York franchise’s nineteen-year history, the Red Bulls raised a cup.
The atmosphere created by those in the arena reveals much about the growth of soccer in the United States. The Red Bulls’ fans stayed to watch the future of their franchise face an opponent in Manchester City sky blue and a VW crest. Several dozen Chattanooga supporters traveled by car and bus more than 800 miles and 12 hours to witness their community club’s third final. They performed their own unique march to the match singing and playing instruments from the bottom of the arena to section 118.
At stake was perfection for Red Bulls U-23. They had the expectation of greatness. Set by the quality of players produced by the academy program and the soccer rich northern New Jersey area many of the players originated from. “With our program we wanted to win it all. We had no other expectation,” said game-winning scorer and player of the match Joe Farrell, “It was that or nothing.”
The Red Bulls U-23 got it all, the NPSL championship trophy and the perfect season by defeating Chattanooga FC 3-1 in a tense and entertaining final. The Baby Bulls finish their 2014 season 16-0-0, conceding 8 goals total, outmatched only by the accumulation of an impressive 67 goals scored. As you watch them, you recognize that several of their players have professional potential and ability.
Chattanooga FC is a community club that gained notoriety with the US soccer community for consistently having both the largest average per game and total attendance despite being founded in 2009. The rowdy visitors from Tennessee were not intimidated by the big city, arena, or name on the front of their opponent’s chest.
Chattanooga FC utilized the team’s clear size advantage to play Red Bulls U-23 physically throughout the match. At first pressing the Red Bulls early, however when they poked the bull they recognized it was not dehorned. Chattanooga adjusted within the first 15 minutes, dropped deeper and countered, nevertheless remaining in the diamond formation for most of the match even as their personnel changed.
Chattanooga struck first in the 14th minute when a Luis Trude shot from distance hit the crossbar and fortuitously fell to All-NPSL team forward Luke Winter’s feet. Winter coolly put in the goal directly in front of the Chattahooligans supporters section in the North Ward. Chattanooga leading scorer put in the biggest goal of the season and the biggest stage. Winter’s got the enviable experience of celebrating in front of a crowd of screaming supporters as he scored in the championship match in a professional soccer arena.
The Baby Bulls, who emulated the first team strategy by attacking wide by overloading the flanks with overlapping fullbacks, answered in a mere nine minutes.
The right flank of the Red Bulls was their prefer side of attack with combination play between rightback Jamaican international Oniel Fisher and right midfielder Franklin Castellanos. Chattanooga’s leftback James Moore had the size against both Red Bulls, but had his hands full defending the quicker and well synced pair.
After a throw in Castellanos swiftly switched fields to find Dan Bedoya. Bedoya laid out a perfect pass in the box to the streaking leftback Scott Thomsen. Thomsen ran clear past John Carrier and got in alone on goalkeeper Greg Hartley and beat him near post to tie up the match.
Not to be outdone by the much praised Chattahooligans, the remaining supporters in the South Ward raised their game and voices. They lit smoke bombs and matched the visiting fans in volume.
Immediately after the goal right midfielder John Carrier, who was nursing a hamster injury before the match, was substituted out for Jose “Zeca” Ferraz in the 24th minute. In NPSL, each team is allowed 7 substitutions. The player subbed off cannot return to the game.
If you watched the live stream or replay on the YouTube feed from the Red Bulls you would have missed the yellow caution on Chattanooga FC’s centerback Jordan Dunstan on a tackle in the 32nd minute. The feed happened to die out and return, cutting out that portion of the match. Red Bulls trying to match Chattanooga’s physicality began accumulating fouls. In the 37th minute RBNY forward Mike Innocenzi picked up a yellow card for a tackle near the center on the park.
The next stoppage in play in the 38th minute brought on a replacement for the big body 6’3 Chattanooga South African forward Sias Reyneke for 27-year-old Kenyan forward Chrispin Ochieng. Reyneke was without a shot in his 38 minutes of play. Ochieng has a US Open Cup goal to his credit.
On the fourth corner kick of the half for the Red Bulls, they decided to challenge Chattanooga with a long corner after going short on their first two. They were nearly rewarded for their courage as the ball bounced to an unmarked Antonio Matarazzo perched at the 6 yard box with an open goal in front of him. Hartley whiffed on the corner, but Matarazzo was unable to control it as he hit it over the crossbar.
Halftime brought a 1-1 scoreline as well as the first opportunity for quiet as both teams’ supporters took a well deserve break. Some of those that left their seats did not return. Despite the quality on the field and energy in the arena it was a long night for many fans as this game began almost a half hour after the completion of the MLS match.
There was a cautious feel to the second half play as both teams recognized the opportunity presented to them. For the Baby Bulls it was perfection and the ability meet the great expectation placed upon them as a program with ties to an MLS club. With Chattanooga FC, the celebrated small city club with the big fan based that rivals United Soccer League – Pro attendance, has a chance to grab their first NPSL championship after two previous failed attempts.
In the 56th minute both Winter and Farrell slide for a ball and into each other. Winter got the worst of it and was forced to come off. It was an unfitting end to an excellent season. He was replaced with 27-year-old midfielder and Clemson graduate Michael Brooks.
The Red Bulls coach Simon Nee made his first substitution of the evening replacing forward Innocenzi to give way for the speedy Sam Adjei to run at the tired backline. Adjei recently returned from injury and Nee was pleased to have him back. Innocenzi was used as the holdup striker in the 4-1-4-1 formation, was on a yellow, and only produced one shot.
Again in the 71st minutes the Red Bulls threatened with a corner as Thomsen sent in a left footed in swinger that found the head of Farrell. After coming to the ball and alluding his mark, Farrell put the ball just wide right. It was the best chance created thus far in the second half.
With the stoppage, the Red Bulls made their second sub taking out Bedoya for Chris Thorsheim. Thorsheim’s first touch was nearly an assist as Adjei tracked down a ball that was headed deep into Chattanooga territory. Adjei back heeled a pass to Thorsheim at the top of the box. Thorsheim opted to pass to his left into the box rather than take a shot from just outside it. His pass was a bit behind another All-NPSL member Victor Manosalvas, but he collected the ball quickly, found space near the spot and struck a right footed shot that again went just wide of the goal. Immediately the Golden Boot winner, Manosalvas, recognized the opportunity that was lost.
Nee’s substitutes had shifted the balance of the game. Adjei a few minutes later would miss a header over the bar from a Fisher cross.
Around the 77th minute Chattanooga found possession. Trude dribbled around a few Red Bulls and found space to take a shot, but was blocked by a defender. Moments later Trude and McCade played a 1-2 combo that would have found McCabe in the box if not for a well-timed challenge by goalkeeper Michael Lansing.
In the 80th minute Red Bulls’ captain Sean Sheridan was called for a shirt tug on Trude 35 yards out. CFC’s Thibault Charmey hit a knuckling free kick that was too hard to handle for Lansing. Zeca got the rebound to the left of goal, but his shot hit Lansing then deflected off his teammate, Ochieng, for a goal kick.
Not since the first 15 minutes of the match had Chattanooga pushed the Red Bulls. With each of New York’s substitutions being offensive, the tired legs in the back were revealed.
The South Ward, dormant for long stretches of the second half, realized the game might slip away came alive again. Farrell on the supporters, “The crowd was huge. They were chanting in the 80th minute and my legs were beat, but we got one at the end. And it was huge [in] part to them.”
The next trip down to the North Ward the Baby Bulls received their ninth corner earned by Fisher. The Thomsen in swinger was headed out of the box by Moore. New York’s Sean Davis had been quiet on the stat sheet until this point. He headed the ball back into the box where it found Farrell. Eight yards from goal Farrell turned on the bouncing ball and guided it past a diving Hartley to give the Baby Bulls their first lead of the evening in the 83rd minute.
The crowd came alive just witnessing the hometown boys take the lead in a championship match.
Threatening all night on corners after they stop going short, the Red Bulls U-23 finally capitalized at the perfect moment. It was fitting a defender scored the goal to win the championship. As a collective the backline with Sheridan in front were superb this night and all season. Fisher and Thomsen each put in excellent performances charging up and down the flank. Credit is due to their counterparts, despite the scoreline it was a defensive struggle from both teams.
Down a goal with the witching hour approaching Chattanooga went route one or wide with crosses. The Red Bulls kept them back heading every white object in sight.
In the 90th minute Adjei’s speed came in good use. In a foot race on a loose ball Adjei got ahead of then shielded off Chattanooga rightback Wil Linder to get a free shot on goal. Hartley made the initial save, but Adjei kept with it, and nailed the rebound. That goal sealed the championship, queue the Alicia Keyes.
At the final whistle the Chattanooga players walked to their fans in the North Ward, who despite the opponent’s celebration did not stop singing.
In front of the largest home crowd the Red Bulls U-23 have experienced this season and on their field of dreams, captain Sean Sheridan raised the NPSL championship trophy to the cheers of a vociferous crowd.
“The credit goes to the Red Bulls organization for believing in youth development, for believing in this incredible team that went undefeated” said NPSL Chairman Joe Barone. “That’s part of history that will never be taken away.”
**To get a feel for the energy of the supporters that night take a listen to Homegrown – Live from The NPSL Championship, including interviews with Chattanooga FC’s GM Sean McDaniel, President Tim Kelly, Chattahooligans capo “El Conductor,” Red Bull and Man of the Match Joe Farrell, and NPSL Chairman Joe Barone.