There were 31 players at Thursday's Dalton Red Wolves practice, each with a different back story, but all with the same goal -- to one day play professional soccer.
"Ever since I can remember, it's be a goal," left back Joe Stacey said. "I played at a good level back home in England, but I wanted a bit of a backup plan if soccer didn't work out so I came over here to get a degree while playing. Now that I'm moving on after college, I want to see if I can continue to chase that dream."
Stacey, who was born and grew up in Sheffield, England, recently graduated from Bluefield College in Bluefield, Virginia, where he played soccer for the past four years. Through a connection with Dalton Red Wolves coach Drew Courtney -- Courtney was the head coach at Bryan College and coached against Stacey's team -- Stacey was offered a chance to play on Dalton's first-year organization this summer. He has been the captain in the first two matches of the club's existence. After a few weeks of training and now a pair of matches, Stacey said he's pleased with his choice to join the Red Wolves.
"Coach (Drew) Courtney invited me to come play with the team, and it seems to be working out so far," Stacey said. "It's a good experience as a first-timer in the USL (United Soccer League)."
The Red Wolves play in the USL League Two, a semi-professional under-23 league that allows players to compete in what amounts to a fourth-tier American soccer league -- below Major League Soccer, USL Championship and USL League One -- without losing college eligibility. Players for the Dalton Red Wolves are not yet professionals but the club is the direct affiliate of the Chattanooga Red Wolves, who play in the professional USL League One.
League Two teams play a 14-match schedule over two months, with the league playoffs in late July and the championship in early August. Through the first two games this season, the Red Wolves are 1-1. After winning the inaugural match in franchise history 1-0 against Peachtree City MOBA on May 18, the Red Wolves lost 3-1 this past Saturday at SC United Bantams in Columbia, S.C.
The Red Wolves practice and play all home matches at Christian Heritage School. The team travels to Statesboro this weekend for a match against the South Georgia Tormenta FC on Sunday at 8 p.m. The next home match for the Red Wolves is a 7 p.m. kickoff against Discoveries SC on Friday, June 7.
The competition at Thursday's practice was noticeably high for players vying for a spot in the starting 11 and on the match day 18-man roster, but at the same time a sense of camaraderie was already visible between players who have only been playing together for a few weeks.
Courtney, who joined the Red Wolves organization after five years as coach of the Bryan College men's team in Dayton, Tennessee, said the challenge of molding a new group of players into a cohesive unit in limited time requires a certain attitude.
"Culture is I think what separates good teams from great teams," Courtney said. "When we bring guys in for three months it's very different from the collegiate game where you can develop guys for four years. But here the expectation is for players to come in ready to go.
"Trying to get the guys to understand things tactically in a short period of time is tough, but it's fun because we have a great group who are willing to work hard and fun to be around."
The Red Wolves' roster features a number of former local standouts including Dalton High School alumni Aaron Fraire, Omar Hernandez and Tony Saldana, as well as Northwest Whitfield alumnus David Perez. Fraire, a 2018 Dalton graduate who recorded a shutout in the Red Wolves win over Peachtree City MOBA, said the adjustment to new teammates and a higher level of soccer has been exciting.
"It's been fun, adjusting to a lot of new things all at once," Fraire said. "We have a lot of foreign players so adjusting to different playing styles has been new. USL League Two is full of players who are looking for a pro soccer contracts and are elite soccer players. It's definitely a step up."
Kentin Olive, a defensive midfielder from Poissy, France, played with the first group at Thursday's practice. After arriving in the United States for the first time last August to play collegiately at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida, Olive said there was a stark difference in the style of play in America versus in France. Olive will enter his senior season at St. Leo this fall, and with the Red Wolves opportunity this summer, the French international has begun to see the path for himself to reach his ultimate goal.
"For me, my goal is to play in the MLS," Olive said. "I want to go step by step. My first goal here is to show that I'm a good player with a lot of talent. Then when I go back to school, have a good year with my university. Then, to be honest, why not sign pro? It's my goal obtain a degree and sign pro, so we're going to see where this takes me."