Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
Given its consistency over the club’s first three seasons and a large contingent of returning players, Louisville City FC was arguably the first team since Orlando City SC earlier this decade to put itself in with a reasonable chance at becoming the first team to record back-to-back USL Cup victories when it returned to defend its 2017 crown this spring.
Louisville has already gone one better than either the 2012 or 2014 editions of the Lions in reaching the USL Cup for a second consecutive year – Orlando’s bids to repeat after claiming the championship in 2011 and 2013 both fell short of the final – but while it has reached this point it has been a fascinating journey the club has been on over the course of 2018.
LouCity both experienced the excitement of breaking ground on the club’s new stadium and its deepest run in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, while also having to manage a mid-season coaching change that included an innovative short-term solution from within the squad itself.
On the field, though, here are five games that left a lasting impression on Louisville’s road to the 2018 USL Cup.
Louisville had gotten off to an ideal start to the 2018 season with three consecutive victories, including one the prior weekend on the road against River Cities Cup rivals FC Cincinnati, but ran into a tremendous goalkeeping display by Richmond’s Trevor Spangenberg that almost kept the hosts from three points in front of its fans at Slugger Field. The Kickers had taken the lead in the 18th minute through Brian Shriver, the first time LouCity had trailed in 2018, and from then on leant on Spangenberg to try and take something from the game.
Those hopes took a hit in the 64th minute when Cameron Lancaster was fouled in the penalty area, allowing Kyle Smith to step up and level the score, but Spangenberg then recorded five saves in the span of two minutes as his defense held on for dear life with 15 minutes to go. As time was winding down, though, it looked as though Louisville’s attacking efforts wouldn’t be rewarded. On the 28th and final shot Louisville produced in the contest, however, George Davis IV sank his former club with a strike that saw the crowd of 6,009 fans come alive in celebration to continue the club’s best start in its history.
LouCity had already claimed victory earlier in the season at Nippert Stadium in FC Cincinnati’s home opener, but the display the visitors put on in its final regular-season visit to the venue before a crowd of 26,495 fans was one of the best any side recorded all season. As it had in the first meeting, Louisville took an early lead as Cameron Lancaster scored in the 15th minute from a free kick and then proceeded to provide little way back for the hosts.
A shot that caromed off the left post from a free kick by Emmanuel Ledesma was the closest the hosts came to pulling level, but when George Davis IV added a second goal with 17 minutes to go, the regular-season series was LouCity’s as Cincinnati recorded only two more shots in the game and was officially held without a shot on goal for the contest.
The departure of the club’s first Head Coach James O’Connor to take the reins at Orlando City SC came as an unexpected surprise in late June, but what proved even more surprising was the means by which Louisville elected to replace him while it searched for a new coach. The triumvirate of Luke Spencer, Paolo DelPiccolo and George Davis IV took the reins in training, with the sidelined Spencer playing the role of Head Coach when the side took to the field for its first league game under its new arrangements on the road against the Tampa Bay Rowdies with DelPiccolo and Davis in action on the field.
Thanks to goals by Kyle Smith and Cameron Lancaster, Louisville came away with victory against a side that was considered one of its biggest rivals in the Eastern Conference going into 2018. Lancaster’s goal with 14 minutes to go restored Louisville’s lead five minutes after Junior Flemmings had found an equalizer for the Rowdies. Officially, the triumvirate posted a record of 4-1-1 in the regular season before Head Coach John Hackworth joined the club on August 13, keeping LouCity in solid contention at the top of the Eastern Conference.
It might appear odd to include a game that saw Louisville suffer one of the more remarkable collapses in the 2018 season in this list, but the top-three Eastern Conference clash against Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at Highmark Stadium subsequently proved a game that hardened Louisville against complacency over the past two months. Things looked to be going to plan as Cameron Lancaster produced a standout finish just past the half-hour mark to open the scoring, and when Alex Souahy notched a second with 20 minutes to go it looked as though Louisville was on its way to a big road victory.
But then in the final minutes everything went south. Souahy redirected a cross by Riverhounds SC’s Joe Holland that caromed off goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh and into the net with four minutes remaining, and that was followed by a foul on Pittsburgh’s Neco Brett by Oscar Jimenez in the penalty area that allowed Kenardo Forbes to convert from the spot to earn the Hounds a point. “It’s really extremely disappointing that we weren’t able to close it out,” said Head Coach John Hackworth after the game, summing up the result.
The disappointed mood in the locker room after the game, though, appeared to galvanize Louisville’s group for the final stretch of the season. A 3-0 victory four days later against Penn FC got the side back in the win column and opened the current nine-game winning streak that has moved LouCity within a victory of back-to-back USL Cups.
After reaching the end of August with 18 goals to his name, the secondary storyline for Louisville’s season was that of forward Cameron Lancaster and his pursuit of former teammate Matt Fondy’s USL single-season scoring record of 22 goals. In leading Louisville to a comeback victory against North Carolina FC – a result that also helped shaped the final postseason field – Lancaster broke the record he had seen Fondy set three years earlier.
Trailing at halftime to a North Carolina side that was desperate for a win to help its playoff hopes, Louisville and Lancaster turned the tide two minutes into the second half as the English forward produced another superlative finish that found the left corner of the net from 30 yards for his record-setting 23rd goal of the regular season. Lancaster – who had scored the dramatic 88th-minute winner in the 2017 USL Cup against the Swope Park Rangers the previous November – then added his 24th of the year with six minutes to go to lift Louisville to victory and continue its roll toward the postseason and the defense of its crown.