CFC Latest News

James looking above to remain grounded

Jalen James celebrates scoring against Inter Miami II

Jalen James speaks on his journey from being a trialist to becoming a hat-trick hero.

Fans could be forgiven for assuming that Jalen James, who became only the fifth player to score a first-half hat-trick in MLS NEXT Pro history in Saturday's 6-2 win over Inter Miami II, was an expected starter for Sporting Director and Head Coach Rod Underwood's plans well ahead of the 2024 season.

The truth, however, is different.

James came to Chattanooga at the beginning of February having received an invitation from the club to be a trialist during the team's 2024 preseason campaign.

The former US U-15 national team member spent his first professional season in 2023 with Lexington Sporting Club in USL League One, making 20 total appearances and recording one assist. While he views that first professional season as a year of growth, it was ultimately challenging and full of adversity and uncertainty.

He knew it was time for a new challenge.

Jalen James enters the field ahead of the match against Inter Miami II

From trialist to signing

"I knew Rod was putting together a team that had a bunch of quality players," said James. "I knew it was going to be a challenge. When you're on trial you don't know too much about what the coaches are thinking. I wanted to come in and perform my best. I knew I had to be myself."

Everything changed for James after the Blastoff Battle preseason tournament in Huntsville in mid-February. He drew and converted a late penalty kick to score the only goal of the game in the team's opener against South Georgia Tormenta. Two days later, in the team's second and final game of the tournament against the University of Alabama-Huntsville, James scored the opener early in the match to ultimately help secure another victory.

"Those two performances changed things and I knew things were going in right direction," said James. "I got a call from my agent after that Huntsville trip to confirm that CFC wanted to sign me. It just felt right being around this team and its atmosphere; it was just different."

James signed his professional contract with CFC and was officially announced as a Chattanooga FC player on February 27th.

Forty-five minutes of joy

James sustained an injury in one of the final matches of preseason and had to start the regular season from the sideline. He got his first MLS NEXT Pro minutes from the start against FC Cincinnati 2 on March 23rd, but was taken off at half-time as he eased his way back into the fold. He was a second-half substitute in the team's first away match of the year at NYCFC II.

Everything changed on Saturday, April 13th.

An incredible first half from CFC against Inter Miami II saw James score his first three professional goals of his career and provide an assist before referee Elvis Osmanovic had blown his whistle for half-time.

"This will definitely boost my confidence," said James. "Coming from last season and having just one assist in the whole season, that was tough. Scoring my first goal, and getting a hat-trick on top of that and an assist, it was surreal, so I'm definitely grateful and thankful for the moment.

"I'm joyful. I'm thankful. Rod [Underwood] took a chance on me, and I'm thankful for it. I'm glad I could help my team win by scoring the three goals."

Fitting like a glove in Underwood's system

All three of his goals showcased different qualities to his game. The first, his ability to finish in a tight space while being closely marked. The second, his ability to create space inside the penalty area and lose his marker. The third, his ability to make and time his run inside the penalty area and his heading ability.

James was keen to stress how Underwood's tactical and technical philosophies of the game are the perfect attributes and compliments for his game.

"Rod [Underwood] trusts us as players," said James. "Whenever we get into certain moments and positions, he wants us to go by our instinct. Allowing a player to have that type of freedom helps me do what comes naturally, so that obviously makes me feel comfortable. Whenever I'm comfortable, I'm able to provide and help the team.

"We had been working a lot on the flanks in training with the outside backs and the wingers. I felt like myself and Jesse [Williams] were able to connect well. Milo [Garvanian] and Taylor [Gray] were connecting well on the other side. I just worked. We were feeling it."

With the match ball in hand after the 6-2 victory, James explained the meaning behind his goal celebration when he points up to the sky.

"Every goal that I score I dedicate it to Jesus Christ, because he's our Lord and Savior, and that's what I believe. So every time I play I just give gratitude to Him, because if it wasn't for Him, I don't feel like I'd even be playing. Always got to give gratitude to the man above."