LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Upon reflection, as their side prepares to try and make history by becoming the first back-to-back USL Cup champion in the league’s modern era, even the most ardent supporters of Louisville City FC could not have envisioned what has transpired over the past five years since the club was introduced in June of 2014.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d be in the position we are now,” said Taylor Sorrels, one of the founders of supporters’ group the Louisville Coopers. “I knew the general history of the league and what you could expect for a good team’s attendance – Cincinnati’s obviously changed everyone’s perspective on what’s possible – but for what we’ve done and the market that we’re in, and what we’ve had to encounter, it gets better every year.”
For those that were part of soccer within the city and region in the years that preceded the club’s arrival, though, LouCity’s presence has put a capstone on what had been emerging as a place where professional soccer was due for a breakthrough. From a solid high school and club scene to the sustained success of the University of Louisville’s program under Ken Lolla, soccer had found its place in the city’s sporting landscape.
That was not the climate that Lolla arrived to from the University of Akron when he was hired as the Cardinals’ Head Coach prior to the 2006 season. While there had been professional soccer in the city previously, both indoor and outdoor, the city had yet to fully embrace the game.
“It was a culture where they had some success with one club, Javanon,” said Lolla. “But other than that, the soccer community was maybe interested in soccer, but I wouldn’t say had a passion for the game.”
Lolla and the Cardinals helped start to change that as the program grew into one of the more successful at the collegiate level, and when the side reached the NCAA College Cup in 2010 with a squad that included current Louisville City FC midfielder Paolo DelPiccolo and other current professionals like Andrew Farrell, Nick DeLeon, Kenney Walker and Dylan Mares, it felt like a tipping point from where the fans attending games became soccer fans, rather than just University of Louisville fans.
“Especially in the fifth year, in 2010 when we went to the national championship game there was a growing interest that started probably more so from a general soccer interest than from a U of L [interest],” said Lolla. “I think because of our growing success that year and the growing crowds we started winning people over, and there became a genuine interest in not only U of L success, but soccer success.”
While Louisville’s program was growing, so was the interest in the local club and high school soccer scene around the region. A former assistant for the Cardinals prior to Lolla’s arrival, Dale Helfrich has seen that growth first-hand as the Head Coach at Trinity High School, which alongside programs like recently-crowned state champion St. Xavier has made Louisville one of the stronger areas for high school soccer in the state.
With a second generation now playing the game competitively across the city, Louisville City FC’s arrival provided something that the broader community could rally around.
“There were great youth soccer clubs, there’s been high school programs, of course not just [University of Louisville] but Bellarmine University, they made it to their conference championship this past Sunday as well and lost on penalty kicks, but as far as climbing the ladder and getting the area to the next step that looked like the logical piece,” said Helfrich. “I think a lot of it is more kids are playing now than ever before, there are more clubs now than ever before. … More kids playing means more spectators when it comes time to watch these high-level games, and a lot of guys like myself that grew up playing are now having kids and I guess it’s finally come full-circle in that regard.”
Both Helfrich and Lolla add that that groundswell of support for soccer that has emerged this decade across the country has likely played a role in the success that cities like Louisville have had in putting together a successful professional side.
“I think it was a little bit of a perfect storm, to be honest,” said Lolla. “I think with our success you could kind of see it growing, but then with the USL team starting it came at a period where at least from my perspective within the country there was a growing interest in the game and I think that generation of people who are now going out and watching soccer games have grown up with an appreciation for it and a familiarity for it.”
The central connection point that City FC has provided has to an extent helped to provide a focal point for the soccer community at large. According to Kentucky Fire Jrs. Technical Director Mike Dickey – who leads the Chicago Fire’s satellite program in the region – when you get to a Louisville City FC game, club allegiances are put aside as the city throws its full support behind the team.
“There’s always been – especially in Louisville – some strong clubs and some good players that have come out of the city, but certainly ever since Louisville City moved into town it’s kinda connected everybody a lot more in the soccer community,” said Dickey. “When you come to a game, you see everyone wearing the colors of the pro team and people are talking about the team, and they’re excited about it.”
That support has been boosted strongly by the presence of the Coopers and the other supporters’ groups that have sprung up since the club was officially introduced. For Sorrels, building a base of fans who would bring an atmosphere that would resonate on a broader scale was key to tapping into the city’s reputation as a town that loved a great show.
“Louisville knows how to throw a great event, a great party,” said Sorrels. “Great at logistics, getting a good venue and atmosphere, and I think that the reason this generation of soccer has gone the way it has gone is because there’s some innate understanding that this was what it was going to take to get people in our community’s attention. Treat it like a big deal, treat it like a big event, get people excited about it and they’ll show up. Now, it’s hard to replicate that over 17, 18, 20 games, however many there are in a season, but I think [that’s] what helps get people to the point where it is now is on the business and sports side.”
The club’s success on the field certainly hasn’t hurt in that regard. A participant in four consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in its first four seasons, and now just the second team to reach back-to-back USL Cups, LouCity’s ownership, front office and players have produced time and again to give Louisville’s fans a great product on the field and a great experience in the stands.
That stadium experience will only be enhanced when the club’s new home in the Butchertown neighborhood opens ahead of the 2020 season, with LouCity having broken ground on the facility earlier this year.
Before the club’s new home opens, though, the University of Louisville’s Lynn Stadium will play host to Thursday night’s 2018 USL Cup against Western Conference champion Phoenix Rising FC. Opened in 2014, the venue is one of the finest college soccer stadiums in the country. Lolla is excited for the game to be held at the Cardinals’ home as Louisville’s soccer community rallies around its side one final time this year.
“I think that if you were to ask Dr. Mark Lynn and Cindy Lynn, who built the stadium, our hope was that when we built the stadium it would be a venue that would host major soccer games,” said Lolla. “That started with the University of Louisville, but I think for them, just knowing them, they would probably want that to be the home for events like a USL final. The stadium was built for people to come and experience and enjoy high-level matches, and for our stadium to be able to host the USL final is exactly what it was built for.”
Beyond what Thursday night holds, though, Louisville City FC’s growing presence across the region has the potential to only add to the rising soccer culture that is building around the club.
“They keep on exceeding my expectations,” said Sorrels. “I’m looking forward to the stadium being open, I’m looking forward to continuing to be competitive in our league, and the great thing about the way they’ve managed this so far is we don’t have superstar, big-name players, we’ve got a group of guys that care about each other and work really hard toward a common goal and have managed to accomplish it – or come close – every year we’ve existed. Where can the club go? I think the sky’s the limit.”