INDIANAPOLIS – Over the past three postseasons there have been moments where Louisville City FC has faced pressure situations.
Two years ago, there was the penalty shootout victory against the New York Red Bulls II that saw goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh dethrone the defending champion, or Cameron Lancaster’s clutch 88th-minute goal against the Swope Park Rangers that earned the club its first the USL Championship Final victory.
Last year, there was the pressure of taking on global legend Didier Drogba in his final game as Phoenix Rising FC visited Lynn Stadium with a title on the line. Luke Spencer came through on that occasion, scoring the only goal in a postseason run during which LouCity never trailed an opponent.
But nothing – not even last week’s comeback victory against top seed Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC – could compare to the situation that Head Coach John Hackworth’s side faced against Indy Eleven on Saturday afternoon at Mike A. Carroll Stadium.
Trailing the side with the best home defensive record in the USL Championship this season, a side that had conceded only six goals in 18 games across the regular season and postseason on its home turf, there was the chance that LouCity was going home before the Championship Final.
And then, with what was almost certainly a final roll of the dice as LouCity goalkeeper Chris Hubbard joined the assembled group in the Indy penalty area for a 94th-minute corner kick, the impossible happened.
Antoine Hoppenot’s perfectly struck finish breathed new life into the defending champion, and took the air out of The Mike and its hosts. Four minutes into extra time, Magnus Rasmussen’s 16th goal of the season put the visitors ahead, thrilling the large contingent of travelling support assembled at the Eastern end of the stadium, and from there it never felt like there would be a way back for the Eleven.
Come through in big moments? No matter who’s on the field, it’s simply what Louisville City FC does.
“I'm just incredibly proud of this team and our club," said Hackworth. “Everybody is a part of it. The fans were amazing. To fight back and to score an equalizer right there at the very end, the last seconds, and then to go on and score two more in overtime? I just can't enough about the belief that we all have for what we do.”
Rasmussen’s goal – his 16th of the season and second game-winning tally of this postseason after a brace against the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals – made him the third LouCity player to record multiple game-winners over the past three years. He joined Ownby and Spencer, who both had a role in Saturday’s magical turnaround, Ownby providing the initial cross on Rasmussen’s goal and Spencer icing the game from the penalty spot in the 113th minute.
But arguably the key to LouCity’s renewed postseason magic each season has been the new faces that every year come to the fore. This time it was Abdou Thiam, whose impact as a second-half substitute after coming on moments after Tyler Pasher had given Indy a 67th-minute lead provided a boost of energy the side sorely needed.
Thiam was almost the hero to provide the equalizer himself, his clever lifted finish reaching around Eleven defender Neveal Hackshaw as Hackshaw and Indy goalkeeper Jordan Farr hesitated coming back off the crossbar with eight minutes to go.
Instead it fell to Hoppenot, the midseason acquisition from Tampa Bay, to continue Louisville’s postseason magic. Now with 11 consecutive playoff wins under their belt, LouCity’s players will return to Lynn Stadium next Sunday looking to continue the tradition that has seen the host lift the trophy after every previous USL Championship Final.
Louisville City FC celebrates its third consecutive Eastern Conference title after defeating Indy Eleven 3-1 after extra time at Mike A. Carroll Stadium on Saturday evening. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
For opponent Real Monarchs SLC – which got its own postseason magic courtesy of Erik Holt on Saturday afternoon to win the Western Conference Final – the challenge of unseating the king of the USL Championship is one it will have to rise even higher to accomplish.
“We just have faith in each other,” said Ownby. “You see it, whenever someone’s looking tired you try to raise their spirits and battle through anything and that’s we did out there tonight.”