Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The sight in the stands was breathtaking.
Even if they weren’t, it certainly felt as though every person in the sellout crowd of 14,456 at the 2017 USL Cup – the second-highest attendance in the game’s history – had risen to their feet to sing Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”, bringing a historic feeling to Louisville City FC’s first chance to claim a championship.
“The atmosphere was really, really special to listen to,” said Louisville Head Coach James O’Connor. “To listen to ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, to the supporters singing it, what we’re generating here, it’s very special to have the support we’ve had, to have that kind of atmosphere. It’s just a very memorable night for everyone connected with the club.”
It was a night that resonated in the stands. For Louisville Coopers board member Matt Owens, a Louisville native who eagerly jumped on board upon the club’s inception, the evolution of the club has been something to behold.
“It’s come so far beyond what I was expecting,” said Owens earlier in the evening. “Going back to the first game against Saint Louis two years ago, we didn’t really have anything together. There was a drum and kind of a march, and just seeing it blossom into all of this, it’s a dream come true.”
The same applied to Edith Gerding-Lewis, not only dressed out in purple but with flowing purple hair to match. Originally from Asunsion, Paraguay, she too was at the first game, and quickly joined up with numerous others to create the atmosphere that can be found game-in and game-out in the club’s supporter section.
“The first game there were very few people here,” said Gerding-Lewis. “Seeing the fans come in from Saint Louis, I was like, ‘I wanna be like them.’ We killed it.”
The unmistakable figure of the king of the Louisville Heretics’ court, James Pizzolato, a native of Boston in his yellow robes and golden crown, was also there, as if there would be any question. The amalgam of fans and groups that have made Louisville one of the top three-attended clubs in the United States outside Major League Soccer came alive like never previously on Monday night.
As young as the club still feels, that still produces a special feeling for Pizzolato and his cohorts in the stands.
“It’s three years in, no-one necessarily feels entitled to a championship right now,” said Pizzolato before kickoff. “In a lot of ways we’re still a very young team, but I think the success that we’ve had the last two years making it to the Eastern Conference Final and this year finally getting through that, everyone’s just excited. This team was so quickly embraced by the community here, I think everyone’s just so happy to see that rewarded with success on the field and a great team and a great coach. It’s been electric all week.”
It was electric in the stands as kickoff arrived too, the Slugger Field-record crowd roaring on the hosts as they battled for an early lead. There was a false start seven minutes in when Paco Craig’s volleyed finish off a free kick began a celebration that was cut short due to the Assistant Referee’s offside flag. But the songs and chants never relented throughout, and when the final whistle blew the pitch invasion that followed, delaying the trophy presentation, felt inevitable.
Owens believes the support that was seen on Monday night, and has been seen on a weekly basis this season, is a great reflection of the city itself, which is a big part of why the club has been so whole-heartedly been embraced.
“I think that’s what really is the key to success with an American soccer team,” said Owens. “It should be in some way a reflection of the city, the fans, you should see the city in that, and I think in Louisville you really do. If you’ve got all kind of gimmicks, a mascot wandering around, that really takes away from it, whereas everything here has grown organically, and has been allowed to, and you can see the payoff.”
Add in the way the organization has built itself into the community, and in particular the players’ role in that work, has also connected the fans closely to the players they cheer on.
“The contact that we have with players really builds that connection with them, and really feeling it’s not just our team, these are our guys, these are our players,” said Pizzolato. “They live in our community, we see them around shopping, and so I think it would be such a huge thing, especially for growing soccer in Louisville.”
“I see them very often just completely outside soccer, running into them, ‘oh, you’re here too!’” added Gerding-Lewis. “It’s really exciting, and I think that’s what the buy-in from the community is, because the team is trying to be part of the community.”
Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
The embrace of Louisville City FC by its local community will soon bring about the arrival of the club’s own soccer-specific stadium, offering an even greater opportunity for the club to enmesh itself with the city that has been there since its inception.
“It’s part of how the city is growing altogether, the whole organization bringing the sport and culture, everything together,” said Gerding-Lewis. “It’s just exciting to see, and now we’re going to get a stadium. I’m from South America, so I’ve love soccer, and I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
And thanks to Cameron Lancaster’s dramatic winner on Monday night, the night that began with a dream ended on the high almost all in attendance had been there to see.
“The culmination of three years that have been unbelievable, so far beyond what I was expecting,” said Owens. “A dream come true, I never could have expected something this good.”