So who are these Chattanoga Red Wolves?

A quick look at tonight's opponents

Tonight at 7pm the Birmingham Legion enters the 2024 US Open Cup. This will be the third round of the Cup, in which 16 of the 24 USL Championship clubs enter the competition.  Five of the teams played yesterday evening; the other 11 play tonight. Louisville City, Detroit City, New Mexico United and the Oakland Roots all advanced; Rhode Island (who have yet to win a game in their inaugural season) lost to the Charlotte Independence in the seventh round of PKs (with former Legionary Gabriel Alves missing his kick). The final 8 Championship teams enter in the next round, along with MLS teams.

The Legion will be facing off against the Chattanooga Red Wolves at the University of Montevallo. The Red Wolves may be somewhat unfamiliar to some readers, so here is a quick overview of the team.

First, the Red Wolves are very much not to be confused with Chattanooga FC. Chattanooga is rare among smaller cities in that it has two professional teams at a relatively high level. Both teams are at the third level of the pyramid; the Red Wolves play in USL 1; CFC currently in MLS Next Pro. There is considerable tension between the two.  CFC is by far the older club, but when the USL announced a professional league at the 3rd tier, the Red Wolves were awarded the franchise even though CFC was in the process of transitioning to a professional squad. Various other issues ensued and there is no love lost between the two. CFC ultimately joined NISA before wisely jumping ship this year.

The Red Wolves began play in 2019. In five seasons to date they have made the playoffs twice, going all the way to the final in 2022, losing to Tormenta FC. Last year they finished 10th of 12. They rebuilt after that. This season though is off to a slow start. They have only played two league games so far, which means that tonight they will have played more US Open Cup games than league games. The two league games are difficult to draw any conclusions from. They lost 0-1 to Lexington SC and beat Central Valley Fuego 4-2, both games away. They were perhaps unlucky to lose to Lexington, racking up 15 shots and 5 on target, hitting the woodwork at least twice. Lexington keeper Amahl Knight had a big game to deny them as well. Central Valley are…well, they’re bad, but they stood with the Red Wolves for a while before finally going down.

In the Open Cup the team had a couple of scares. In the first round they played Brockton FC United out of Massachusetts. Brockton plays in the UPSL, a developmental league with extensive national reach and nominally on the same level as USL 2. The Red Wolves won that one (the only game they have played in Chattanooga in 2024, although not at the home stadium) 4-2 in extra time. After going 2-0 on two penalties, they incurred a red card and Brockton were able to score twice after the 88th minute to force extra time. The Red EWolves finally took the lead just four minutes from the final whistle, adding an insurance goal as time expired. In the Second round they traveled to Atlanta to face Apotheos FC, an NPSL team with just two years of history, but who made it to the national final of the NPSL last year. That one they won narrowly 1-0, although they could have scored several other times.

In the four games this season the team has played 3 different formations. Against Brockton and Lexington, the two earlier games, they lined up is 4-2-3-1. Against Central Valley they played a 5-3-2 and against Apotheos a 4-1-4-1. Therefore it’s a bit difficult to assess how they will turn out tonight, although I suspect that the 4-2-3-1 is off the table, since they struggled in that formation. Another reason they had a hard time against Brockton was that Ropapa Mensah did not start the game. That was presumably done to allow other players to get some time in an anticipated easy match. Mensah is the team’s biggest scoring threat. In that game he scored the two late goals to win the game and against Central Valley he was involved in all 4 goals, notching a hat trick and an assist. Mensah has extensive Championship experience, having played with Nashville, Pittsburgh and Sporting Kansas City II.

The only other attacking player with any real name recognition for those who don’t pay much attention to League 1 will be Ricky Ruiz, a winger who was with the now-defunct Rio Grande Valley Toros the past two seasons.

At the back the team has used two keepers; TJ Bush in league play and Tim Trilk in the Cup. Bush, who was with the Charlotte Independence in the Championship and after that with Tormenta the past two years looks to be the presumptive starter and was impressive in his two games to date. Trilk was with the Red Wolves for two years before joining Indy Eleven in 2022, now returning to his former club. My guess is we are likely to see Bush this evening.

Chattanooga are not to be dismissed. The talent gap between the Championship and League 1 is relatively narrow, and in the only USLC/USL1 matchup in the Cup the lower league team came out victorious. Tonight’s game could well be way more entertaining than one might otherwise expect. The Legion beat the Red Wolves 4-1 last year, but this is far from the same team.

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