Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As time ticked down in the 2017 USL Cup, the Swope Park Rangers appeared set for their third trip to extra time this postseason.
But then, Louisville City FC had other ideas.
Cameron Lancaster’s 88th-minute goal for the hosts in front of a sellout crowd of 14,456 fans at Slugger Field sent the Rangers to a second consecutive defeat in the league’s championship game, and one that was far harder to bear than last season’s loss.
“It just rips your soul out, a goal that late,” said Rangers midfielder James Musa. “I said to the guys after the game you’ve got to keep your heads up, because we gave it our all and it’s hard to lose any game, let alone a final, but when you lose to a goal like that, you’ve just got to accept it, especially that late in the game.”
The Rangers had weathered an early story of pressure from Louisville, roared on by their vociferous fans. Uncharacteristic mistakes that saw turnovers result in opportunities the hosts were unable to take advantage saw Swope Park struggle to find a rhythm until midway through the first half, but even when the Rangers were able to begin to establish pressure only a pair of long-range shots produced saves from Louisville goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh.
After getting to the break scoreless, though, the visitors looked the sharper as the second half began. Kharlton Belmar, who had a goal ruled out for offside in the first half, almost got to a through-ball that was snagged just in time by Ranjitsingh, and the Rangers looked to be solidly on top.
Louisville got back into the game as the second half wore on, though, after when Lancaster’s cushioned header from Speedy Williams’ cross from the right dropped under the crossbar to nestle in the right corner of the net, suddenly it was all hands to the pump in attack for the visitors. Even the attacking endeavors of goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas couldn’t come to fruition, though, as the streak of home teams claiming victory in the USL Cup reached seven.
There was clear sympathy for their opponents from the Louisville side.
“I really feel for Swope too, that’s the horrible side of it, when you score a goal so late it becomes hard for them, and I think they’ve got some smashing young players,” said Louisville Head Coach James O’Connor. “Huge respect for Nikola and the job he’s done there and the way they play. It was a very tough game, when you look at the way both teams play, we did a decent job of cancelling each other out.”
“There’s nothing you can do when you concede in the 89th minute, that’s just unfortunate,” added Musa. “If we’d conceded in the 60th minute, or in the first half, it gives us time to get back into it.
“I don’t think there’s anything else we could have done.”
The defeat brought another outstanding season for the Rangers to an end on another sour note. While not the 5-1 defeat to the New York Red Bulls II in the 2016 USL Cup, the narrowness of the margins between defeat and victory on Monday night could linger longer in the memory for the Rangers’ squad.
But for Swope Park Head Coach Nikola Popovic, there was nothing but pride in the fight and resilience his side showed in hostile territory.
“The team showed this all season that we were always going to fight in every condition,” said Popovic. “This team showed it is resilient, and in two years to achieve four finals and two titles, it’s fantastic for a team. I’m very, very proud of all of the players, not only this 11 who played or came in, but all the group who played this season, and the last two. The club should be proud of these players.”
It might not be much consolation now, but if 2017 was anything to judge by, the Rangers will be back as a contender once again next spring.
“We gave it our all,” said Musa. “I’m proud of everyone. It’s been a fantastic season, and we keep going, we push on for next year.”