Can They Go One Better This Year?
BY KEVIN KERNEN | PHOTOS BY JONATHAN LINTNER FORMERLY OF LOUISVILLE CITY FC
As the calendar turns the page to October, Louisville City and the United Soccer League enter the home stretch of the regular season calendar, the most consequential time of the season for teams whose playoff destiny is in doubt. Luckily, the only thing Louisville City has to concern themselves with is securing top seed for the playoffs and home field advantage that comes with it.
The team has established itself as one of the most formidable outfits in the league, boasting a dangerous rotation of strikers, a flexible group of midfielders and a staunch cadre of defenders that together have given LouCity the tools they need to improve on their last two seasons’ playoff exits, both in the conference finals.
For a second division soccer team in America, success is hard to replicate and nearly impossible to maintain, especially for the almost three seasons that Louisville City has. This almost unparalleled success can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff and Coach James O’Connor, who is a great recruiter of players and an even better scout.
The team was lucky to hold onto as many players as they did over last offseason, and additions to the squad during that time have proven the difference in this regular season. Coach O’Connor looked to import players with USL experience, and guys like Brian Ownby, George Davis IV, and “Speedy” Williams have certainly contributed much to the teams continued success.
The addition of Ownby and Davis IV, in particular, as well as the adventurous play of outside defenders Kyle Smith and Oscar Jimenez, have yielded some exciting and expansive soccer, and the team has been more positive in their play because of it. All of this has taken some pressure off central midfielders and also gave the physically imposing Luke Spencer opportunities to outmuscle and outwork defenders to get on the end of crosses, something he does exceedingly well. LouCity hasn’t had a player quite as imposing as the 6’2” almost 200 pound forward, who has thrived after a move from his hometown club of FC Cincinnati.
After having a couple of offensive talismans in the first two years in League MVP and goal scoring record holder Matt Fondy and MLS-level proven Chandler Hoffman, the team has found a reliable replacement with Spencer. There’s also been more of a rotation in the strikers, Ilija Ilic got more starts in one month than he has in his first two years with the club, and Cameron Lancaster has also factored into a handful of goals himself, taking the load off the de facto single striker system that had developed with Fondy and Hoffman playing in attack.
The only real moments of doubt that have come up throughout the season have been associated with the goalkeeping. When Greg Ranjitsingh reinjured his groin in the season opener, Tim Dobrowolski took up the role of keeper for the duration of Ranjitsingh’s absence, playing well and maintained his spot for five games, even after the former’s return to health. A disappointing outing against Tampa Bay led to Greg reprising the spot between the sticks.
Ranjitsingh has had a few gaffes, which has led to a healthy competition for the spot, and there’s been a back and forth for selection by Coach O’Connor, where Ranjitsingh has edged Dobrowolski in appearances, but the spot is far from safe for the Canadian born Tobagonian.
On the whole, Louisville City experienced an upturn in performance from 2015 to the 2016 season, and the club is again on pace to edge their point total from last year, where they managed to lose just four times in the 30-game season. What caught up with the team last year, however, was not their four league defeats, but the nine draws they had, several of them in games against much weaker opponents, something that the squad has largely been able to avoid this season, even having lost a greater number of matches, they are now in a better position.
Not only has the team’s performance improved year to year, but there has been a marked uptick in attendance as well. Where the team saw an average of just over 6,700 at home in 2015’s regular season, and 7,200 in 2016, 2017 has averaged almost 9,000 through the turnstiles at Slugger, punctuated by the five-goal dismantling of FC Cincinnati in front of the club’s first ever sellout crowd of 13,812 on Aug. 12.
While all signs are pointed in the right direction, the real moment of reckoning for Louisville City has yet to come. They have a condensed schedule over the last few weeks of the season, including the recent road swing to Canada before playing out their final two games of the season at home, the penultimate contest against Charlotte, which may end up deciding who enters the playoffs in the top spot in the East, and a finale against a listless Richmond Kickers outfit, which could be an opportunity to rest some players before the start of the nearly month-long postseason.
The playoffs will begin a week after the final regular season matchday, and with the table as congested as it is, you can expect to see teams’ seeds change and if last year’s final weekend is any indication, some teams knock another out the playoffs on the final day.
For LouCity, attaining the top spot is important. They’ve gone to two straight conference championships, both on the road (Rochester in 2015 and New York Red Bulls II in 2016) and neither in front of very many people. The crowd at Louisville Slugger Field is great and to be able to play there as long as possible is a very worthwhile goal to see out the season with.
Having talked with Coach O’Connor after the heartbreaking penalty shootout loss at Red Bull Arena to end last season, I know that both he and the team expect more out of themselves, and as for qualifying the season as a success or failure, River Cities and Kings’ Cups aside, anything less than a USL finals appearance would be a disappointment.