Louisville City FC's Brian Ownby and Richard Ballard celebrate among their teammates after defeating Phoenix Rising FC 1-0 in the USL Cup on Thursday night. | Photo courtesy EM Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When John Hackworth took over as Head Coach of Louisville City FC in early August, it didn’t take him long to figure out that he had a special group.
After celebrating the club’s second consecutive USL Cup success, a 1-0 victory over Western Conference champion Phoenix Rising FC on Thursday night before a sellout crowd of 7,025 fans at Lynn Stadium, Hackworth revealed that he felt his team would repeat after guiding his new players through their first two training sessions.
“They’re a brotherhood,” Hackworth said. “They have this high standard and they want to be pushed, they want to be coached and I felt like ‘oh my god’ if we can get this right, if we can get some ideas right, if we can clean up a few things, I thought it was going to happen.”
After a tense opening hour of play saw both sides spurn their best chances with some wayward finishing, Luke Spencer wrote his name into the Louisville history books with a volleyed finish from close range following a goalmouth scramble from a corner kick. Spencer’s 62nd-minute strike proved to be the game-winner as Louisville held on to become the first club to successfully defend its USL Cup title.
“Tonight was so tough for us, but in the end we were able to do it,” Hackworth said. “Congrats to Phoenix, I thought it was a hard-fought game and it came down to executing off a restart, something that we’ve been good at in recent games, but I also thought we played some good soccer and I’m proud of the way that we performed tonight.”
Hackworth felt that his side was able to unbalance Phoenix’s defensive set-up with their ball movement as it maintained 57.4 percent possession and recorded 407 passes – 114 more than Rising FC – at a success rate of 78.1 percent. LouCity captain Paolo DelPiccolo led the way from his holding midfield role by recording a team-high 58 passes, completing them at an 81 percent clip and often spreading the ball to fullbacks Kyle Smith and Oscar Jimenez on the flanks to provide width in the attack.
DelPiccolo, who served as part of the triumvirate of player-managers that led Louisville for just over a month following the departure of former Head Coach James O’Connor in June, said that having the experience of last year’s 1-0 USL Cup success over the Swope Park Rangers helped the team overcome a slow start on Thursday night but added that the team’s confidence never wavered.
“The belief was there from February 1st, 2017,” DelPiccolo said. “We thought we could win it and then we came back this year and we thought we could win it. There was never a time in any game throughout the season, games we lost, games we won, we always said, ‘come on, we can win this thing.’ I think that was the most important thing was just having the entire group just really believing we will win this Cup.
“It’s been the same core guys for a long time so we had a lot of guys for two years and we all live in the same area and we all hang out eight hours a day so we get to know each other pretty well and we’re all very committed to what we’re trying to do and I think that’s what just leads to bonding as a team.”
As it enters the offseason, Louisville City will try to keep its squad – and the chemistry that comes with it – together for next season as the club prepares for the inaugural campaign of the USL Championship. DelPiccolo understands that he and some of his teammates may get the opportunity to move elsewhere over the offseason but hopes that the squad is ready for a challenge when it returns to the pitch in March in pursuit of a three-peat.
“Every year [the league] gets so much better, so every single game this year was harder than it was the year before and every single playoff game was harder than it was the year before,” said DelPiccolo. “Next year I expect it’s going to be even harder than this year, so for us there can’t be any complacency week in, week out.”