Tag Archives: USL

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2017: The Year of the Champions

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.

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Kickin’ It With… Sean Russell

By Kevin Kernan | Photos Courtesy of Louisville City FC

Louisville may not seem like the obvious next step for a player who had just won the league in his home nation, but for one of Louisville City FC’s newest signings, the United Soccer League (USL) seems like the perfect fit. 

Sean Russell, a 23-year-old, left-footed Irish player, had been tracking the USL’s progressive improvements from across the pond for a few years. When LouCity’s head coach James O’Connor offered Russell a contract last December, he leapt at the chance. An obvious student of the game, Russell sought pastures anew after last season to forge a path where he would be given time to develop with, and for, a club.

For everything he is gaining by moving from the unsettled environment in Irish soccer that he described as a “merry-go-round,” Russell is also making a few sacrifices to establish his soccer career in the United States.

Back home, he was playing under his father, a former player himself whose journeyman career spanned eight teams and 20 years. He left behind a team in Limerick FC that he had fought with to earn promotion to Ireland’s top division after being relegated the season before, a feeling he described as “the worst in my career.” There is no doubt Russell is stepping out of what would be many players’ comfort zones to gain experience and skill in a country that he hadn’t set foot on previously.

Despite the lower division status of the USL, the move here was not random for the utility player. While Russell said many people in his home nation feel that if you don’t play in England or Europe, “there isn’t much else out there,” he saw beyond that.

“Recently, the USL has been growing at a really good rate, it’s been something that I was looking at and thinking that the level was quite good and (he wanted) to get an opportunity here and grasp it,” Russell said.

After expressing interest in the Russell for several weeks and tracking his play, Coach O’Connor extended a contract offer.

“He didn’t have to sell the club too much to me,” Russell said on their negotiations “I knew how srprofessional they went. The philosophy of the game that James (O’Connor) puts into the squad is exactly what any player would want to play for.”

Russell looks to fit well into the Louisville City team, too. His versatility and work rate will keep him in good stead with O’Connor. In Ireland, he spent time both playing left back in defense and also could take up a more advanced spot in the midfield. Sean’s experience on set pieces means that he could be the one tasked with taking over free kick and corner duties.

Arguably, the most valuable thing he brings to the team are his intangibles. Championship experience is something that characterized all of the team’s signing this offseason, and Russell is no different.

Back in Ireland he played more than 1,200 minutes over a 28-game season to earn his team’s promotion to the first division. It was immediately apparent in conversing with Russell that he shares both the appetite and acumen for the game with the rest of the team.

Off the pitch, Russell likes to keep a low profile. He enjoys his down time but is looking forward to exploring the locale with his girlfriend, Becky, who made the trip stateside with him.

He also is keen on procuring a PlayStation, as it’s something he left back home in Ireland. While he is a fan of FIFA (the go-to soccer video game), Russell said, with a chuckle, he has only played as Limerick FC a handful of times.

Louisville City FC is fresh off their trip to IMG Academy in Florida, where they built up both their fitness and esprit de corps before returning home to a slate of preseason friendlies. The season kicks off March 25 when they host regional rivals Saint Louis FC.