When Luis Salazar and Irvin Espinal played soccer at Dalton High, they were the cogs in a dynamic, high-scoring Catamounts offense. Upon graduating in 2006, Salazar was the owner of school records for most goals scored in a career, with 73, and most goals in a season (26). In Espinal’s senior season in 2007, he broke Salazar’s single-season goal record by scoring 28.
Today, the two are teammates for Chattanooga FC, a team in the National Premier Soccer League — the highest ranking amateur soccer league in the United States, according to npsl.info.
On Saturday, before a crowd of more than 6,000 at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, CFC played a non-league game against Atlas, an under-23 club from Guadalajara, Mexico, and won, 2-1.
In the 80th minute with CFC leading 1-0, Espinal scored on a direct kick to put the game away.
“(Atlas) had formed a wall (on the direct kick) and jumped,” Salazar said. “Irvin kicked it under the wall. It was pretty funny.”
Salazar joined CFC after a tryout in January and Espinal has played with the team since its inaugural season last year. CFC is 1-0 in league play, beating Atlanta FC last week, 1-0, at Hoskyn Stadium in Atlanta.
CFC is one of five teams in the NPSL’s Southeast region, along with Pumas FC (Birmingham, Ala.), Rocket City United (Huntsville, Ala.), Atlanta FC and FC Tulsa (Okla.). Each team plays the other twice during the season, once at home and away, and the conference winner goes on to play in the league’s Final Four, which features conference winners from the other three regions — Midwest, Northeast and Northwest. The tournament will be in Madison, Ala., July 29-31.
Salazar said his short-term goal in playing with CFC is to win the NPSL championship this season. As for his long-term goal, he’s hoping the opportunity is a launching pad to a professional career.
“This is a really good level of competition,” he said. “There are a lot of good players with a lot of experience. There are former All-Americans on the team. The game speed is so much faster here and it’s a step above college.
“Atlas (U-23) is part of the professional Atlas team (which plays in Mexico’s Primera Division, a professional Mexican football league), and most of those players will be pros one day. Playing against competition like that helps me understand it’s going to be different at every level — I’ll always have to get quicker, faster and make quicker decisions. It’s a good way to learn.”
Earlier this month, Salazar graduated from Berry College (Mount Berry), where he played on the soccer team and majored in communications. He’s considering looking for internships related to his degree, but has bigger plans to try out for a professional soccer team.
He said his father has contacts in Costa Rica and he knows a few coaches there. He’ll work on his game and conditioning in hopes of being ready to travel to Costa Rica in December.
“If I don’t give it a try, that’s something that’s going to bother me the rest of my life,” he said.
Salazar said it’s been a good experience playing for CFC and having Espinal as a teammate once again. At this point in the young season, Salazar said he starts and Espinal is substituted for him later in the game.
Salazar said he’d like to play alongside Espinal because they “know each other well and know how to play together.”
“Hopefully, we can score together like we did in high school,” he said. “We could do some good things out there.”
There is a chance Salazar and Espinal will take the field together this season, as CFC’s rotation can change at any time.
“Everyone on this team is good,” Salazar said. “Not only is everyone good, they’re experienced and smart. It’s not like in college where you have to wait for someone to graduate before you can take their spot. You have to play hard in every practice and every game, because anyone here can step up and take your spot.”
Espinal could not be reached for this story.