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‘I think we’ve begun to build something really special here’ – Q&A with LouCity’s Danny Cruz

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 11/11/22, 5:00PM EST


Catching up with the youngest coach to lead a team into a USL Championship Final in league history

Louisville City FC's Danny Cruz has led the side to a 42-14-14 record across the USL Championship's regular season and playoffs since his appointment in April 2021. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

It’s been just over 18 months since Danny Cruz was appointed Head Coach of Louisville City FC, first as interim in April 2021 and then permanently last October as he led the side to its seventh consecutive Eastern Conference Final appearance in the USL Championship Playoffs.

This year, the former Houston Dynamo and D.C. United player has taken the perennial contender back to its first USL Championship Final since 2019, and the fourth overall in LouCity’s history. At 32 years old, Cruz will be the youngest person to lead a team into a Championship Final when LouCity visits San Antonio FC on Sunday night at Toyota Field (8:30 p.m. ET | ESPN2 | ESPN Deportes | SiriusXM FC).

Ahead of the game, we caught up with Cruz to assess his own growth, what it’s like coaching former teammates, and find out why LouCity’s Academy has flourished so quickly since its establishment.

Q: On Sunday, you’re going to be the youngest Head Coach to lead a team into a USL Championship Final. What does that represent to you?

Danny Cruz: I think that I’ve had a lot of excellent mentors. I have an incredible group of players that I get to work with every single day. And then I have a staff that’s constantly supporting me. When you hear that, obviously, you know, it’s humbling and at the same time, it’s the work of a lot of different people.

Louisville City FC Head Coach Danny Cruz had previously been teammates with current players Corben Bone at the Philadelphia Union and Brian Ownby with the United States U-20 Men's National Team. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

Q: You’re also the Head Coach on a team that includes one of your former United States U-20s teammates in Brian Ownby, who’s still lively as ever. What’s that dynamic like with him and some of the veterans on the team?

DC: I think I played with a few guys on the roster, like Corben Bone and Tyler Gibson, and I think for me, the biggest piece is that the relationship and the trust that had to build over a long time. It certainly, I would say, is pretty unique with how many players I’ve been fortunate enough to share the field with, but I think it adds an element, like I said, of trusted belief in one another. When I need to be critical, they know it’s coming from a place of wanting to win. I think that’s the biggest thing, the trust that you build between the players in the locker room and yourself and the staff. I think that becomes really, really key to success, in my opinion.

Q: Did you think you were ready to be a Head Coach when you took over from John Hackworth?

DC: I felt that I was ready. I certainly believe I still have a lot to learn, but Hack and I had built the roster together. I knew everybody extremely well, their strengths, their weaknesses, and I felt that with this group, with the group that I was given, that I was in a position to be able to be successful at a club like this. I’m not sure I would have said the same if I was put in a situation at a different club where my roles and responsibilities may have been different, but I certainly don’t have that here.

Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since then?

DC: That's a good question. I think the most important thing would probably be to remember that the relationships and trust that you build every day becomes key. It becomes key in winning games, because when times are tough, or you know when you’re losing games, those relationships and values, that’s what carries you through adversity and difficult times. So, I would say the trust and relationships that I’ve built with the players.

Q: I think I remember after last year’s Eastern Conference Final, you felt you got a bit too conservative too early. How big a lesson was that game, and how did it impact your approach this year?

DC: I think that I learned a lot from that game, it had a heavy effect on my growth and my development. I think when I looked at that game, you’re absolutely right. I went a little bit more conservative and felt that I couldn’t solve the problem from the sideline. And I was questioning myself, I was second guessing. And I feel like that’s been a big part of my growth, that I’m trusting in the decisions that myself and my staff make.

In game, our subs have done a tremendous job and had a heavy effect, a positive influence on the games. But I think the biggest thing is I felt much clearer-headed in the decision making. I think a lot of that comes with time, that comes with experience, and more importantly, reflecting on where I needed to be better.

In his second season at the helm of Louisville City FC, Head Coach Danny Cruz believes he's become a better in-game manager with the experience he's gained over the past 18 months. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

Q: This year, LouCity set club records for points, wins and shutouts, and recorded the fourth-most points in a regular season in league history. How did you and this squad accomplish that?

DC: I think it starts at the beginning with our process of bringing players in and there’s a lot of different people involved in that who can take credit. I think if you look at the relationship and how [Louisville City FC President] James [O’Connor] and I worked with one another, I think that's been really positive for me and I’ve learned a lot. I think when you look at the depth of the team, and the build of the roster, it’s played a heavy role in where we are this year in the table.

And most importantly, and I’ve said it before already at the beginning of the year, I think we have a really good balance of experience in the locker room, of youth in the locker room, and those are two things that come together and turn into something that I think is extremely unique, and more importantly really special.

Q: The club’s Academy has been in the spotlight this year, first with Joshua Wynder’s call-up to the United States U-19s and nomination for Championship Young Player of the Year and then with his, brother Elijah and Carlos Moguel Jr.’s performance in the playoffs. What’s your sense of where that part of the club is headed next?

DC: I think we’ve begun to build something really special here. It starts with a couple of things. No. 1, the age the players are going into our academy. No. 2, the integration between the First Team and the Academy Staff. I have a constant dialogue with [Louisville City Academy Director] Luke [Spencer] and [Youth Academy Director] Mario [Sanchez] about the players that are coming up, who deserves an opportunity in training, strengths, weaknesses, and then when they get there with the First Team – whether they have an Academy contract, a First Team contract, or are just training – I think you have to have a group of players that are willing to work with those young guys, who are willing to lead everything.

I think that’s a huge reason why these young players that we have, especially from our Academy, have come forward, and then you have to look at their work-rate and their mentality, their understanding of what it means to be a pro, and those things have to be aligned. They certainly are from our Academy all the way up to the First Team.

Brothers Joshua (left) and Elijah Wynder have made a major impact in Louisville City FC's First Team this season, and are among five Academy graduates currently signed to pro deals by the club. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

Q: You spoke about the club’s culture and locker room leadership and its importance early this week. Are there any prior stops you’ve had in your career you could compare to what LouCity has right now?

DC: I learned a lot in my first year in Major League Soccer in the locker room I was in at the Houston Dynamo. I was a young player, and I felt there were similarities in that locker room to the one that I see here, and that was a successful locker room at the time. What I mean by that is when I was in that locker room they took me under their wing, they were hard on me, but they taught me what it meant to be a pro and more importantly how to win things. I think a lot of my belief in this structure in the locker room comes from learning a lot at that young age from really, really experienced top-level players.

Q: LouCity has been to more conference finals and more Championship Finals than any team in league history. What would it mean to become the first team to win three league titles? 

DC: For what this organization is and how hard everybody here is working and investing in the community, in the training facility, in that stadium, in the academy, I think it would mean everything for us this year. You know, there’s so many people that have played important roles in the success of this club over the years and I want nothing more than for everybody to be able to enjoy that moment. From staff, to players, to front office, to owners and fans, to our Academy kids that are going to be watching from home, the young ones, I just think it would be a really special way to cap off incredible year where we’ve accomplished quite a bit.

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