Irvin Espinal scampered past a defender, tracked down the pass from Felipe Lawall and tapped it into the net for Chattanooga Football Club’s first goal of the season.
Only it wasn’t.
As the CFC players bounded toward the sideline in celebration, the referee signaled Espinal offside, nixing what would have been the tying goal in Saturday night’s National Premier Soccer League 2012 opener.
Chattanooga FC threatened numerous times throughout the match but never capitalized, suffering a 1-0 loss to the Knoxville Force before 3,827 fans at Finley Stadium.
“In my opinion I wasn’t offsides,” said Espinal, the 22-year-old Honduran striker now beginning his third season with CFC. “I ran behind the defender and I don’t think he expected me to, because he stood up.”
Espinal played a role in several other scoring chances as Chattanooga FC dominated possession and outshot Knoxville 19-4. He was much sought-after during the postgame session when kids poured onto the field asking players to autograph jerseys, shoes, caps and programs. Espinal might have considered signing some gear for his own teammates, considering the influx of new players who had only two practices to become acquainted.
“We know half the team because we’ve played together for a while, but the other half we’re getting used to,” Espinal said.
Added first-year coach Bill Elliott: “We were still trying to learn everyone’s name at practice on Friday.”
That lack of cohesion surfaced when CFC scrambled to defend the corner kick that led to Knoxville’s goal in the 14th minute.
Force midfielder David Rodriguez made a leaping deflection in the crowd and former Christian Academy of Knoxville star Brandon Tarr — now the top scorer at Belmont — headed home the match winner.
“A couple people were marking space and a few people were marking men, so it was a mixup really,” said CFC keeper Greg Hartley. “We just haven’t had much time to train on our set pieces.”
Elliott suggested his keeper had the proper line on the ball until one of his own CFC teammates crashed into him. “We basically got in each other’s way,” the coach said.
Still, the one-goal lead seemed unlikely to stand for long as Chattanooga FC mounted repeated attacks.
In the 20th minute, John Carrier found himself dashing past the defense into a one-on-one with Knoxville keeper Rummy Runwald only to lose control of the ball in the box.
A minute later, Carrier’s free kick from a yard outside the penalty area was punched away by Runwald at the right post — the same post Michael Brooks hit three minutes later on a spinning shot from 10 yards out.
“(Knoxville) had very little attack, very few chances, and we hit the post three or four times,” said Elliott. “I think we played pretty well, but you’ve got to score goals. I don't know that you ever feel good about a loss.”
Chattanooga FC’s last golden chance came in the 67th minute when former Baylor star Fynn Glover was tripped up in the penalty box while trying to control a long lead pass.
That the takedown occurred directly in front of the Chattahooligans cheering section led to screams for a penalty kick, but Glover wasn’t certain of the foul.
“I know (the defender) got me, because I hit the ground, but I couldn’t see whether he got the ball too,” Glover said. “I don’t think it was an obvious call for the ref.”
The teams complete a home-and-home series next Saturday in Knoxville atUT's Regal Stadium, the same venue in which the Force knocked CFC out of last year’s playoff chase.
“Luck wasn’t with us tonight,” said Espinal. “We’ll just have to beat them at their home next time.”