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Why Niall McCabe’s drive, evolution made him the last original standing at Louisville City FC

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/05/24, 4:10PM EDT


A starter in LouCity’s inaugural game in 2015, the Irish veteran has become a bridge between the club’s past and its future

Niall McCabe has made 214 regular season and playoff appearances for Louisville City FC in the USL Championship over his 10-season career. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

When Louisville City FC first took to the field for its debut in the USL Championship in 2015, Niall McCabe was in the starting lineup.

Ten seasons on, the Irish midfielder is still going strong.

More than that, he’s also now the last man standing from that original squad, which set the standard for everything that LouCity has achieved over its first decade as a club.

“It feels like a lifetime ago, and it seems like only yesterday as well,” McCabe told this week. “Obviously, 10 seasons at one club, especially at this level, you don’t see many players doing it. I’m obviously very proud of it. It’s something I’ve worked hard to do, to stay at a high level, and hopefully it’s something I’ve earned as well. It’s an honor.”

Across 214 appearances and 13,655 minutes in the USL Championship’s regular season and playoffs, McCabe has seen it all. Two league titles, two more Eastern Conference titles, nine consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Final and 153 regular season victories – the most in the Championship since the club launched in 2015 – have made LouCity the league’s flagship club.

Four years after opening Lynn Family Stadium – which on Saturday will welcome the national television spotlight for the first network broadcast in league history as LouCity hosts Indy Eleven on CBS – the side has continued to go from strength-to-strength on and off the field.

That’s placed Louisville at the forefront of the USL Championship’s growth as a league, in which, from McCabe’s perspective, the standard and competition has never been higher.

“We have a good product. I think we have a lot of good players in this league, a lot of good teams,” he said. “It's a testament to the players, the owners and the teams that have been able to put on such a good product in the last few years that people are starting to actually take notice and realize that, hey, we have great facilities here, great teams that play good soccer and like you’ve seen in the Open Cup are capable on the day of competing with MLS and the leagues you see back home.”

For McCabe and LouCity, the journey to Saturday’s historic broadcast began during an inaugural season that set the tone for his and the club’s future. Coming out of NCAA Division II powerhouse Young Harris College, he admits he had a chip on his shoulder to try and prove himself, but in addition there was a mentality from then-Head Coach James O’Connor on down that to be a success as the new club in the city, the side had to be a winner from the start.

Louisville City FC veteran Niall McCabe celebrates with forward Wilson Harris, part of the new guard that has helped maintain the club's history of success. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

“I think we had a really good group,” said McCabe. “James was obviously at the helm as well back then, and he didn’t mess around. It was win-or-bust, every game. We trained like every Saturday was a cup final. It sounds cliché, we had a very small roster at that point – 18 or 19 players and three of them were goalkeepers – so in terms of outfield players it was quite small, so you knew everyone was going to be needed.

“I think it really kind of set the standard for us the next year, because we got to the Eastern Conference Final and lost to Rochester 1-0. It really leaves a sour taste in your mouth, and the next preseason you want to come back and do it all again.”

LouCity fell at the same hurdle the following year, eliminated in a penalty shootout by eventual title-winners Tyler Adams, Aaron Long and the New York Red Bulls II, but by the start of the 2017 season the core of the group that would lead the side’s success had formed.

McCabe and the club’s all-time leading goalscorer Cameron Lancaster were part of the original squad. In Year 2 arrived recently-retired captain Paolo DelPiccolo and center back Paco Craig, and then for Year 3 the trio of Brian Ownby, Oscar Jimenez and Sean Totsch, all of whom played important roles for the side that would win consecutive Championship titles in 2017 and 2018 and reach the Final again in 2019 before seeing its bid for a three-peat ended by Real Monarchs SLC.

Niall McCabe celebrates Louisville City FC's 2018 USL Championship Final victory as the club became the first to win consecutive league titles in the Championship era. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

Totsch and Ownby remain part of the squad today, but as the club has grown, McCabe has been joined by a new set of players that are equally driven to succeed. Among them there are a few, like 21-year-old LouCity Academy graduates Elijah Wynder and Carlos Moguel Jr., that grew up watching him star for the club as youngsters.

According to McCabe, the early success that laid the foundation for its permanent home and successful Academy program is central to the scale of LouCity’s rising visibility and influence.

“I think the core is still the same, they always want to win, they always want to be a success,” said McCabe of the club’s evolution. “Year 1 to Year 10, that’s still the main thing. It’s just gotten so much bigger. I feel like a sense of importance now on winning as well, because we have the stadium.

“We’ve got the academy now as well. We’re seeing players come up from the Academy as kids to join the First Team, and even moving them on. I think that’s been a big influence for the Academy kids and the local kids around, they’re seeing it on their doorstep that there’s now possibilities and opportunities that wasn’t there before.”

McCabe has evolved and grown as well. Having played as a more attacking midfielder early in his career – recording a career-best six goals and six assists in the 2018 title-winning campaign – he’s moved into a deeper-lying role as the years have gone on. The influence of former coaches O’Connor and John Hackworth and current LouCity boss Danny Cruz have added more tactical insight and awareness to his game, making him a more versatile player.

By his estimation, McCabe’s individual preparation has also become better as he’s become older. That’s allowed him to keep pace with the level of talent that can be found across the league, which continues to rise each season.

“I think the league has gotten so much better,” said McCabe. “In the last five years, I’d say it’s gotten drastically better, so the level of professionalism that you have to show also needs to be higher. I’m way more professional now over the last five years or so than I was.”

Niall McCabe is one of three players to have recorded 200 appearances in Louisville City FC's colors over the club's first 10 seasons. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

The other part he’s working on? Trying to take more time to embrace the successes he and the club have achieved more fully in the moment.

“It’s hard to say now, but when you're wrapped up and competing out here every day, it’s so intense,” he said. “When you win a game, I move very quickly on to the next one, and I’m even like that now. It’s hard to enjoy because you’re so focused on winning, I don’t really take the step back to enjoy it. I haven’t enjoyed it since ’17 and ’18 when we won it all.”

After all these years, that’s still what drives McCabe each day. Whether it’s in 5-on-2s or training drills during the week or on gameday itself, the 33-year-old is always aiming to come out on top. With LouCity having claimed three wins from three to start the season, the chances are another shot at claiming a third league title – and becoming the first club to do so in the USL Championship era – will be there for the taking.

As far as he’s come, the hunger to stay on top remains.

“When I win, I’m happy, and when I lose, I’m not. I think that’s a big part that drives me. I always want to prove myself. Even now, I’m desperate to win more.”

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