BY KEVIN KERNEN | PHOTOS BY CHRISTIAN WATSON
A little before midnight on Nov. 13, Louisville City captain Paolo del Piccolo and the rest of the 20-strong squad hoisted their third trophy of the season: the United Soccer League (USL) Cup.
Rewind back a long nine months to the day the club began their preseason regiment of strength training and conditioning at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. There, LouCity spent two weeks at the world-class 500-plus acre athletic facility, each day punctuated by two-a-day conditioning workouts, training, and injury prevention programs, an investment that held the squad in good stead throughout the campaign. It was here that team leader del Piccolo first noticed the squad had the potential to be contenders. On the team’s mindset in preseason training, he offered, “We were looking around and thinking ‘oh my goodness, we’ve got a team here.’ ” It’s a sentiment that most other players have echoed, not only in the immediate moments after the championship, but all season.
After falling short their first two seasons, the 2017 iteration of LouCity marched all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference, finishing the regular season 8 points above the second placed Charleston Battery, a team with whom they shared a couple of exciting draws and bested once in three regular season matchups. Everyone knew that it was important for this team to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, not only for a competitive advantage, but to build support for the team moving forward, as Coach O’Connor noted in the press conference leading up to the USL Cup Final. “It’s very important to be able to host the game. We’ve come pretty close the last couple of years and were able to get there this year… . When you look at the growth of Louisville City and you look at our attendance figures… it shows the passion the supporters have for Louisville City.”
Coming into the 2017 season, the team revamped the roster. Having lost keys like Kadeem Dacres and Aodhan Quinn to upriver rivals FC Cincinnati, the team signed strong players with USL experience in Brian Ownby, George Davis IV, Oscar Jiminez and Devon ‘Speedy’ Williams – all of whom have made an impact on the squad and in games. Coach O’Connor found an electrifying player in Louisville native and Indiana University product Richard Ballard, someone who has proven himself as an invaluable late-game substitute throughout the season.
Then there was Luke Spencer.
While there was much made, mainly on social media, of the swoop from FC Cincinnati to come in and snatch up Dacres and Quinn, LouCity quietly unearthed a gem in Luke Spencer. Having played his college ball at Xavier, Luke was drafted by the New England Revolution before he injured his knee prior to signing on with the MLS side. He returned to Cincy where he played in the amateur Premier Development League and coached at his alma mater. He signed on with FC Cincinatti ahead of the 2016 season, playing just 64 minutes and registering four shots in the entire season.
Fast forward to the end of this season, Spencer led the champions in goals scored, registered 19 league starts, five assists and was named USL Player of the Week after he tallied a goal and a pair of assists in the 5-0 thrashing of his former team. While Quinn and Dacres featured in more matches than Spencer, they share two goals and no assists between them.
As the team announce they’re returning an astounding 16 players from the championship squad, it seems as if this team has as much potential as ever. Among the departing are three-year starters Sean Reynolds, Tarek Morad, and Guy Abend, with Morad likely to move on and Abend possibly signing a new contract with the team for the 2018 campaign. For next season, O’Conner is likely to replace Morad and Reynolds – both defenders – with a strong, yet agile player. Returning players Sean Totsch and USL Team of the Year member Paco Craig both possess these characteristics, which lend themselves to a three-defender back line, something Coach experimented with and adopted during the season, thanks to a staunch pair of goalkeepers in Ranjitsingh and Dobrowolski. That transformation freed up wingbacks Oscar Jiminez and Kyle Smith to use their pace to get up and down the sides of the field, to great effect, netting nine assists between them.
With a change in ownership, club leadership and front office expansion, and a stadium change soon to come, one thing has remained the same – a stalwart manager in James O’Connor. He is extolled by players, supporters and owners alike. The pragmatic, stoic and determined Irishman has made Louisville home for his wife and children and earlier this season, much to the delight of the Purple faithful, signed a contract extension with his coaching staff Daniel Byrd and Thabane Sutu through 2020.
The team this year has looked a step better. In previous years, they could become frustrating to watch as they let wins slip to draws and draws slip to losses. Longtime fans will remember lackluster results like in 2016 when they drew 0-0 Bethlehem Steel, 2-2 against a Wilmington team that folded later on that year and a heart-wrenching loss to Orlando City B that many fans will still get upset about.
This year, the squad has minimized falling flat, even against a stronger Eastern Conference. The team learned from that frustrating draw at home to Toronto FC II, a lackluster performance at Tampa Bay, who’s wage bill dwarves LouCity’s. A fluke of a game was had in Charlotte on their second meeting of the season, when an Enzo Martinez hat trick sunk the Purples for their fourth of only six league losses. They rescued a 4-4 draw at Charleston, where they twice found themselves down by two goals. They also defeated the New York Red Bull II on all three occasions they met, including the Eastern Conference Final rematch from last year. Let’s also remember the soaring triumphs, the 4-0 win at Bethlehem Steel, the 5-0 trump of Harrisburg City, the 4-1 smashing of Saint Louis.
And the five-goal extermination of Cincinnati.
More remarkable than the team’s propensity to put up crooked numbers, was their ability to win narrowly. On 11 occasions this year, Louisville City won by a margin of one goal. Of course, that includes the most famous win of them all, the USL Cup Final.
It was an electric evening. Western Champions and 4th seeded Swope Park Rangers were in town, hungry after being on the receiving end of a 5-1 hiding at the hands of New York in the previous seasons final. A TV deal meant that the game started at 9 p.m., but that did nothing to dampen the spirits of the 14,456 on hand.
It was a tense game. Louisville City played remarkably sloppy in midfield; perhaps the occasion was getting to them. The first half saw a goal for each team ruled offside, but nobody really had the definitive edge.
A couple of untimely injuries meant Swope was forced to make a few substitutions before they wanted to. They grew shakier in defense as the second half wore on, but LouCity grew stronger, bolder. In the 88th minute, off of a Kyle Smith throw in, Speedy Williams lofted a cross into Cameron Lancaster from deep in the midfield.
If you ask any of the players what happened next, they’ll tell you it was a blur.
But it was a Louisville City goal.
The rest is Louisville sporting history.