LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Brian Ownby scored on either side of halftime to lead No. 2-seed Louisville City FC to a 2-0 victory over No. 6-seed Bethlehem Steel FC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2018 USL Cup Playoffs on Saturday night at Slugger Field.
Ownby’s first two goals of the season propelled Louisville back to the Eastern Conference Final, where it will meet the New York Red Bulls II for the third consecutive year. Louisville, which has now advanced to four straight conference finals overall, avenged a 2016 penalty shootout defeat to New York with a shootout victory of its own last season on the way to winning the USL Cup.
However, it was Bethlehem that started the match brightly on both ends of the pitch, as defender Ben Ofeimu did well to get his body in the way of a shot from George Davis IV in the opening 60 seconds and midfielder Santi Moar recorded the game’s first shot on target in the eighth minute with a right-footed drive from distance that was gathered on a bounce by Louisville goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh.
After a slow start, Louisville worked itself back into the contest and nearly took the lead from a 23rd-minute corner kick as Paco Craig headed Oscar Jimenez’s delivery just wide of Jake McGuire’s goal. The home side did open the scoring 11 minutes later, however, as Ownby ran onto Jimenez’s low cross from the left wing and fired a left-footed shot into the bottom-right corner of the goal for his first tally of the season.
Bethlehem nearly responded less than three minutes later, as Steel FC winger Chris Nanco cut into the box and worked the ball onto his left foot for a shot, but Ranjitsingh reacted quickly to get a palm to it and push it over the crossbar.
Louisville came close to doubling its advantage four minutes before halftime on a free-kick routine, as the hosts looked to continue their success from set pieces after converting three in their win over Indy Eleven last weekend. Niall McCabe received a quick pass and thumped a long ball into the penalty area for Paco Craig, who headed it back across the face of goal and into the path of Ilija Ilic, but the forward’s acrobatic first-time effort was stopped just short of the goalline by McGuire.
The home side extended its lead 14 minutes after the break as McCabe lifted a curling ball over the top of the Bethlehem defense, allowing Ownby to run onto it and slot a right-footed finish past an onrushing McGuire. The midfielder nearly completed his hat trick in the 73rd minute as he made a marauding run down the left side of the field, beating a pair of Bethlehem defenders before cutting onto his left foot for a tight-angle shot that was parried clear by McGuire.
Bethlehem nearly pulled a goal back 13 minutes from time as Moar’s dipping and curling effort stung the top of Ranjitsingh’s crossbar, but that was as close as the visitors would come as they saw their season end at Slugger Field for the second straight year.
34’ – LOU – Brian Ownby (Oscar Jimenez)
59’ – LOU – Brian Ownby (Niall McCabe)
#LOUvBST: Full Match and Opta Box Score
1. With the win, Louisville City FC advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the fourth straight season and is now just two victories away from becoming the first club in the USL’s modern era to claim back-to-back USL Cups. Louisville also remained unbeaten at Slugger Field all-time in the USL Cup Playoffs, notching its ninth postseason victory on its home turf. LouCity will have the opportunity to improve that record to a perfect ten-for-ten next weekend when it hosts the No.5-seed New York Red Bulls II in the conference final, with the two clubs having split the previous two such occasions via penalty shootouts.
2. After failing to score in his first 23 appearances this season, Brian Ownby couldn’t have picked a better time to finally find the back of the net. His goals on either side of halftime helped Louisville eliminate Bethlehem from the postseason for the second consecutive year, having beaten the Pennsylvania side 4-0 in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals a year ago. The 28-year-old midfielder also apparently has a knack for scoring in the conference semifinals, as he netted Louisville’s only goal in a 1-0 victory over the Rochester Rhinos at this stage a season ago.
3. Bethlehem Steel FC will be disappointed to see its season come to an end at Slugger Field for the second straight year, but the side should hold its head up high after putting up a fight without Michee Ngalina, Anthony Fontana and Matthew Real in the lineup. After playing 36 different lineups in 36 games this campaign, Head Coach Brendan Burke will surely be looking for a more consistent starting eleven next year, but his youthful side has plenty to build on after an impressive campaign saw the side finish sixth in the conference and pick up its first ever playoff win last weekend in Pittsburgh.
USLSoccer.com Man of the Match
Brian Ownby, Louisville City FC – Ownby had arguably his best performance of the year for Louisville, winning 18 of 26 duels and finding the back of the net twice to help his side to a ninth straight home playoff victory.
Eastern Conference Final – Louisville City FC vs. New York Red Bulls II, Friday, November 2, 7:30 p.m. ET, Slugger Field
Bethlehem Steel FC – End of Season