Louisville City FC's decision to clog the center of the park made things difficult for the Charlotte Independence during Saturday's contest at Sportsplex at Matthews. | Photo courtesy Charlotte Independence
If you were listening closely enough, you might just have heard it.
That sound, ever so slight, emitting from both the sideline of Sportsplex at Matthews and living rooms across Louisville as Luke Spencer found the back of the net in the 80th minute on Saturday night against the Charlotte Independence was…not a cheer.
But a sigh of relief.
Spencer’s late tally – his sixth of the season – snapped Louisville City FC’s 282-minute goal drought and three-game winless run, while ending Charlotte’s five-game home winning streak in one fell swoop as the visitors held on for a hard-fought 1-0 victory.
“This was huge, especially with the unfortunate string of results we’ve had,” said Louisville goalkeeper Chris Hubbard, who kept his team in the game early with a stunning save on Charlotte’s Abdoulie Mansally. “We thought in the majority of those games we had the better of the play, the better of the chances, and it’s extremely frustrating when you perform so well but you can’t finish it out. This is a big result in terms of where we are in the table and how we advance for the rest of the season.”
The three points saw LouCity overtake Ottawa Fury FC for seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings on the total wins tiebreaker and move within two points of sixth-place Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC – which has played two fewer games – as it tries to avoid the inaugural edition of the Play-In Round in the USL Championship Playoffs.
While that hasn’t looked likely for the back-to-back champions, especially of late with consecutive losses to teams below the playoff line in Loudoun United FC and Bethlehem Steel FC, there’s still plenty of time for things to change.
Louisville will play three of its next four matches at Slugger Field, where it possesses a 6-3-2 record this season, and will have the opportunity to gain ground on the teams around it in a pivotal four-game stretch that features home dates with North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven sandwiched between trips to Charleston and Pittsburgh.
LouCity Head Coach John Hackworth, who will want to make sure his players don’t overlook Sunday’s must-win match against ATL UTD 2 before entering that stretch, loved the way his charges continued to overcome adversity after going down to 10 men for the second straight game.
“We have battled through a lot and we’ve been hurt by a lot and we’ve taken our lumps and clearly we had a resolve tonight that we were not going to lose and that was huge,” said Hackworth. “Even when we were down a man for that stretch, I still felt like we were a team that was going to get something out of it.”
Alex Martinez’s subsequent sending off for the Independence 12 minutes after Paco Craig’s dismissal certainly opened the door for Louisville, but there wasn’t a sense of inevitability about a winning goal as there may have been in years past.
And while Hackworth was happy that one finally did arrive for Spencer, he was even happier about how his side reacted to a formational change that saw it move away from its typical high-pressing 4-2-3-1 to a more defensively compact 4-1-4-1.
“The group responded all week long in a very positive way and those are tough tactical changes for us because we did something different, something we haven’t done at least since I’ve been here,” said Hackworth. “Very proud of the way the players took that information and executed on the field.”
The result was the club’s first clean sheet since a scoreless draw with Saint Louis FC on May 18 and the end of a run that had seen Louisville concede the opening goal in seven consecutive games.
“I liked it. I enjoy the press as well because generally we’re pretty good at it, but it just leaves us a little vulnerable at times,” said Hubbard. “The way we did it tonight, having the block of nine, that’s just so tough to break down.”
It showed. Louisville congested the middle of the field and limited the hosts to nine shot attempts and just three on target over the 90 minutes, well below its season average of conceding 13 shot attempts and five on target away from home.
If this tactical change can continue to quell some of the questions we’ve had about Louisville’s defense since its 4-1 opening day defeat at North Carolina FC, then the defending champions will certainly have a puncher’s chance when the USL Championship Playoffs come around.