The Oppo: Louisville City FC
The team to beat in the Central Division
In this edition of The Oppo, we are going to deviate from our intended schedule. To date we have been looking at the Legion’s opponents in reverse order of when the Legion first plays them. We are down to the final three, but the second-to-last is getting bumped up in the schedule, because they start their own schedule early. This evening, in fact, when they host Atlanta United 2 at 6:30pm Central (available on ESPN+).
And so we now examine the team that everyone needs to worry about: Louisville City FC. The Legion don’t have to wait long to see how strong this squad is this year: they face off against them in just the second game of the season, heading to the swanky new Lynn Family Stadium on May 8th. The Three Sparks also play them in the final game of the regular season at home on October 30th, and if everything goes according to plan, that game could have enormous playoff implications.
Louisville City came into being in 2014 when a deal was struck to relocate Orlando City’s USL rights to Kentucky when that city joined MLS. Wayne Estopinal, a minority owner in Orlando became majority owner, and Orlando City SC of MLS retained a minority stake. The club was almost indistinguishable from its predecessor and part-owner, retaining the same colors and installing former Orlando assistant James O’Connor as its first head coach. The first season in Louisville was 2015.
On the field, Louisville is the definition of consistency and success. In six seasons the club has never finished lower than the semi-finals, has won it all twice and been runner-up once. In the regular season, it has finished 1st in the conference twice, 2nd three times and 4th once (in the league overall, 2nd three times, 3rd twice and 6th once). Their best run in the US Open Cup was also fairly good, making it to the quarterfinals in 2018. For 2020 they lost in the Conference Final 2-1 to the equally impressive Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Louisville has had just two head coaches in its existence, also an indicator of success. Irishman O’Connor led the team until mid 2018, when he left to take the helm at Orlando City in MLS (he was fired at the end of 2019 after dismal results and has not been rehired since). The club’s interim solution before finding a permanent head coach was unusual: they allowed a group of three players to run the team. Luke Spencer, Paolo DelPiccolo and George Davis IV were known as the “Triumvirate” and coached for 7 games, with a record of 4-2-1. All three are still with the club, although Spencer is retired from playing and holds an academy and college recruitment position.
Louisville City then lit upon John Hackworth. Hackworth had a rather limited playing career, with just one professional appearance, although he had been a standout in college at Wake Forest and played some years as an amateur. As a coach, it’s been a different story. He was a long-time youth coach in the US national team system, and also spent some time as an assistant at MLS’ Philadelphia Union before taking over at Louisville, where he has continued the history of winning.
The team’s roster is, well, complete. It currently includes 22 senior players and 7 academy players. The overall squad also remains largely intact. There have been some changes, though. As previously noted in this series, midfielder Speedy Williams left for The Miami FC. Williams’ replacement is Tyler Gibson, formerly of Indy Eleven, and he’s not a downgrade.
Also gone is goalkeeper Ben Lundt, who was USL Goalkeeper of the Year in 2020; he was on loan from FC Cincinnati and is now back in Ohio. He may be the bigger loss of the two. Louisville has two netminders on the roster, American Chris Hubbard and Frenchman Lefebvre, who once had a trial with Birmingham City, is the likely #1; he racked up 35 saves last year with Loudoun United.
Of the returnees, the biggest name is Englishman Cameron Lancaster. The Tottenham Hotspur academy product has been with Louisville since its origination, but the last two seasons were on loan from Nashville SC. He’s now under a permanent deal. Oh, and he scored 12 goals in 2020, good for #3 in the league. Assist-makers Antoine Hoppenot and Brian Ownby are also back, so Lancaster will have plenty of scoring opportunities again.
Talk about stacking the deck: as usual, the schedule-makers have been up to their evil tricks. City’s first seven games include just one midweek game, but of those seven six are at home. Which from one point of view isn’t entirely unfair. They opened their expensive and much-vaunted new stadium last season and need to generate some revenue rather soon. Still, it gives them a huge advantage out of the gate. Oh, that one road game is at Atlanta United 2. And the six home games include both Legion visits to Kentucky.
Louisville doesn’t have any really truly rough stretches in its schedule, the worst being 5 games over 21 days starting with their first visit to Birmingham on August 28th, with only one at home in that time. The two games either side of that stretch are also away, but those are at OKC Energy and Memphis 901.
Louisville will be a contender yet again. They are stacked at almost every position, have well-established management and are backed by a very loyal fan base. They are easily a top 5 team in the Championship. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be good to play them; the Legion needs a few challenges. And we haven’t played them since 2019 (both teams won the league away game that year, and then there’s that US Open Cup game…
Final Grade: A+
Have I mentioned that this is a good team? Well, they’re not. They are a very good team.