World Soccer Talk

Louisville City cements itself as most dominant club in American soccer

Louisville City appeared almost out of thin air in the summer of 2014. When Orlando City was granted an expansion slot in MLS, their USL slot needed to be filled and Louisville City was born. While there were some fans in Louisville that were quite enthusiastic about the new team, some scratched their heads. As a sports town, Louisville was known for its passion for college basketball, making baseball bats and the Kentucky Derby. Not only has the city proven to have a great passion for soccer, but the team has proven to be very competitive on the field. Support in the stands has gotten better every year, and the results on the field have been nothing short of fantastic. With the club winning its second consecutive USL championship earlier this month, Louisville City has positioned itself as the most dominant team in American soccer.

Louisville’s City’s first year in USL was 2015. Not much was expected of them. It was only their first season after all. They were playing in a Triple-A baseball stadium, and had a roster of lower league journeymen and a coach who had been playing in the league just the year before. But they blew the doors off those expectations with a phenomenally hot start to the USL regular season. They lost just once in their first eleven games. They then dropped two in a row before going unbeaten in nine of their next ten matches, which included winning six straight at one point. Things got nervy at the end of the regular season when they dropped four of their last five games, including the last three matches. But they still finished in second place in the Eastern Conference, and earned a spot in the USL Playoffs.

During the first half of the season, they played in the annual US Open Cup, and gave a good account of themselves. They entered the competition in the second round where they defeated Lansing United. A week later, they defeated Indy Eleven in the third round thereby earning a fourth round matchup against the Chicago Fire of MLS. They got all the way to extra time tied 0-0 before Quincy Amarikwa broke the deadlock four minutes from time to send Louisville out after a memorable first Open Cup run during which all three of their games were on the road.

Also in the middle of the season, Louisville played an exhibition against Orlando City, which made sense given that Louisville had been given Orlando’s spot in USL. In front of a crowd of over 9,000 at Slugger Field, Louisville defeated Orlando 3-1. Once the playoffs rolled around, many were curious to see how the first year team would handle a big stage. They had earned a first round bye and began play in the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Charleston Battery. The game went to extra time tied 0-0 before Matt Fondy struck twice to send Louisville to the Eastern Conference finals. There awaited the one team that finished ahead of them in the regular season: the Rochester Rhinos. For the third time in a knockout round game that year, Louisville went to extra time tied at 0-0. But for the second time, it went against them as the Rhinos prevailed 1-0 on their way to winning the USL Championship. But Louisville could leave with their heads held high as their first season was a rousing success. They finished second in the Eastern Conference, went to the Eastern Conference finals and made a run to the fourth Round of the US Open Cup. In the stands, they were just as good. They averaged 7,041 through 16 games. Not bad for a first year team in a town without much soccer history. The bar had been set.

The 2016 regular season started out even better as Louisville City went unbeaten in 18 of their first 19 games. And in that season, the team didn’t come undone in the final few weeks like they did a year earlier. In 2016, they only lost back-to-back games in July and then once in August. They finished the regular season unbeaten in five straight matches, eventually finishing the regular season in second place. And who did they play in the first round of the USL Playoffs but the Rochester Rhinos. They defeated the Rhinos 2-0 in extra time and beat the Charleston Battery 1-0 in the Eastern Conference semi-finals earning their second straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals. As was the case in 2015, they faced the one team who finished ahead of them in the regular season, but this time it was the New York Red Bulls II. And just like 2015, the game went to extra time. This one even went all the way to penalties, but as was the case in 2016 they came up short falling in the shootout 4-3. On the field, Louisville was just as good as they were in 2015 but in the stands they got better as attendance rose to 7,078 through 17 games.

In the US Open Cup, they won their first game in the second round on penalties against Detroit City before falling on the road in the third round against Indy Eleven.

The year 2017 saw Louisville City get off to yet another blazing hot start, going unbeaten in eleven of their first twelve. And as was the case in 2016, they closed strong, losing just once in their last nine games. They were especially adept at scoring during the year. They put four past Charleston Battery and St. Louis FC. They put up a pair of 5-0 showings against FC Cincinnati and Harrisburg City Islanders. They started in the second round of the US Open Cup with a 9-0 hammering of Tartan Devils Oak Avalon before falling in the third round on the road against FC Cincinnati.

While the US Open Cup run was not as good as they had hoped, they still finished in first place in the Eastern Conference and qualified for the USL Playoffs for the third straight year. They continued their goal scoring torrent with a 4-0 shellacking of Bethlehem Steel FC in the first round. They followed that up with a 1-0 victory over the Rochester Rhinos in the Eastern Conference semi-finals to earn yet another trip to the Eastern Conference finals. As the old saying goes, it was third time lucky as they got revenge on New York Red Bulls II (winning 4-3 on penalties) to punch their ticket to their first ever USL Championship appearance against Swope Park Rangers. They did not disappoint on the big stage. In front of a national TV audience (the game aired on ESPNU) and in front of a sellout crowd of more than 14,000 fans, Cameron Lancaster scored the only goal of the game in the 88th minute to secure the team’s first ever USL Championship. While the team surpassed itself on the field, the fans also surpassed themselves as attendance rose again, this time up to 8,781. What’s also impressive is that in the first two seasons of the club’s existence they had drawn just one crowd of over 10,000 people. In 2017, they drew five such crowds. Louisville had reached the top. Now the challenge was to stay there.

This past season was perhaps the most turbulent regular season in Louisville City’s short history. They got off to a decent start going unbeaten in their first six games before dropping back-to-back games against Indy Eleven and Nashville SC in early May. They bounced back with consecutive wins against Atlanta United II and FC Cincinnati but then went into a little bit of a swoon as they went winless in six of their next seven. They got it straightened out in late July but then started to come apart again with a four game winless stretch from August 28 to September 15. Fans needn’t have worried though as they closed the season out with six consecutive wins to lock up the second spot in the Eastern Conference and a fourth straight USL Playoff berth.

So why the mid-season turbulence? Well, the answer to that was manager James O’Connor leaving on June 30 to take the open Orlando City job (funny how these two clubs are so closely intertwined). They were without a manager for all of July (with several different players serving in an interim basis from game to game) until a permanent manager was finally named. Enter John Hackworth, who had previous managerial experience as the head coach at the University of South Florida from 1998-2001, two different stints with the US U-17 team (2004-2007 and then again from 2015-2018) and the Philadelphia Union from 2012-2014.

During the midst of all that uneasiness, Louisville made their best ever US Open Cup run. As always, they entered in the second round and promptly dispatched the Long Island Rough Riders 5-0. They then beat St. Louis FC 1-0 in the third round. In the fourth round, they pulled off the upset of MLS side New England Revolution (the club of former University of Louisville defender Andrew Farrell) in a thrilling 3-2 victory that saw Louisville concede in the 5th minute, only to tie it up in the 11th minute, fall behind in the 26th minute, tie it up in the 37th minute and score the game winner in the 62nd minute.

They advanced to the 5th round for the first time in team history but were not satisfied with that as they made quick work of Nashville SC by a final score of 2-1. The came their first ever Quarter-finals appearance against the team that knocked them out in 2015: the Chicago Fire. Unfortunately, this game fell in that month where Louisville had no manager and they were trounced to the tune of 4-0. Interestingly enough, that was Louisville’s only road game of the Open Cup, after having nothing but road games each of the first three seasons. Also of note is that none of their home Open Cup games were played at Slugger Field, but were instead played at Lynn Stadium on the campus of the University of Louisville (more on that later).

Louisville City entered the playoffs in the first round and eased past Indy Eleven 4-1 and then beat Bethlehem Steel 2-0 to clinch their fourth straight trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they crushed New York Red Bulls II 5-1, to earn a chance to defend their USL title. But this time they would have to do it against one of the greatest players of his generation. A player who had played for teams like Marseille, Chelsea, Galatasaray, and Montreal Impact. A player who had won the UEFA Champions League and played for his country at three World Cups. Louisville City would have to get past Didier Drogba and Phoenix Rising. The game would be played at Lynn Stadium instead of Slugger Field (no official reason was given, but the theory is that the Louisville Cardinals basketball team was opening their season a few blocks away at the KFC Yum Center and traffic would have been a nightmare in downtown Louisville) and would draw an over-capacity crowd of 7,025 (Lynn Stadium seats 5,000) and be shown on ESPN2. As was the case last year, Louisville did not disappoint on the big stage, winning 1-0 on a 62nd minute goal from Luke Spencer. Another marvelous season in the books for Louisville. They made their deepest ever US Open Cup run and successfully defended their USL Championship crown. Attendance was down, but was still a solid 7,890*.

Louisville City has only existed for four seasons. Yet, they’ve become the most dominant team in American soccer. They have finished no worse than second place in the Eastern Conference table during the regular season. They have gone to four straight Eastern Conference finals, and they’ve won back-to-back USL Championships. They’ve also done very well in the US Open Cup, having won at least one game in every edition of the tournament they’ve appeared in. They’ve also made a pair of reasonably deep run. going to the fourth round in 2015 and all the way to the quarter-finals this past season, where they were the last non-MLS team remaining in the competition. This past season saw them withstand a managerial change and finish the season strong anyway. This past summer, they broke ground on a new soccer-specific stadium in the Butchertown area of Louisville, not too far from downtown. It is slated to seat around 11,300 people and is on track to open in March 2020.

The lack of coverage of this team and its accomplishments by those in the American soccer media is rather peculiar. Nothing was said about this most recent USL triumph except for a few tweets from folks like Taylor Twellman and Ives Galarcep. Dominance and success like this should be a big story but for whatever reason, it isn’t. Even the local media isn’t as on top of this story as they should be. One Louisville City season ticket holder reached out to me and said that the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper has done a very poor job of covering the team up until very recently. Only when the team appeared to be on the cusp of a successful title defense did the local media pick up and run with it.

While the media may not be taking note of Louisville City, several other soccer entities are. Orlando City hired away James O’Connor as their manager. It does need to be said how big of a coup it was for Louisville City to get John Hackworth as O’Connor’s replacement. While his time with the Philadelphia Union wasn’t a great success, his name still carries weight from both his time in MLS and US Soccer. It’s also worth noting that after the 2016 season, Louisville City had to replace GM and President Amanda Duffy who left to take on a role in the NWSL front office, where she was instrumental in getting the league a TV deal with Lifetime and filling in for former commissioner Jeff Plush (leading her to be voted one of the 35 most influential women in sports by AdWeek). But these accomplishments by the coaches, players and front office have gone largely unnoticed by those at the major American soccer outlets. In any case, results on the field are fantastic, support in the stands is solid and getting better, and a new stadium is in the not too distant future. Nothing is stopping Louisville City.

One final point to close this piece out is the emergence of Louisville as a soccer town. Obviously, a lot of that growth has been spurred on not just by the presence of Louisville City but by their success. Their supporters group, The Coopers, is as good as any in the country. Attendance at Louisville City games has been solid since day one. But that’s not the only thing driving the support for soccer in the Derby City. In 2014, the University of Louisville opened an on-campus, soccer-specific stadium named Dr. Mark & Cindy Lynn Stadium, which hosted the Cardinals Men’s and Women’s soccer teams. Designed by TEG Architects, it seats 5,000 people in the main stand and has grass seating behind one of the goals and a giant video board facing the main stand. It is, without a doubt, the best soccer specific stadium in all of college soccer. The Cardinals Men’s soccer team is one of the more consistent programs in college soccer. In fact, they went all the way to the College Cup Final in 2010 before losing to an Akron team coached by Caleb Porter (who would win MLS Cup with the Portland Timbers in 2015). The Cards have also placed several players in MLS such as Austin Berry with the Chicago Fire and Andrew Farrell with the New England Revolution. And just a few days after Louisville City’s USL triumph, the Cardinals won the ACC Tournament for the first time ever and locked up a top seed in this year’s College Cup. Huge credit needs to go to coach Ken Lolla for that.

So it’s safe to say that Louisville is a real soccer town now. They have a super successful USL club with a new soccer-specific stadium on the way. They have a solid college soccer program at the University of Louisville with a spectacular on-campus, soccer-specific stadium. And every so often, they show up in the Top 10 TV markets for a random Premier League game. And it’s only going to get bigger and better from here.

*Note: The attendance figure only factors in games played at Slugger Field. Louisville played three US Open Cup games and the USL Championship at Lynn Stadium.