Inside Louisville City’s sustained success in the USL

  • With all of their success over the last five years, Louisville City FC may be the United States’ best second-division club
  • Even with different managers leading them, Louisville has shined in the USL
  • Louisville City’s tactical continuity, core players, and smart roster moves set them apart from the rest of the league
Louisville City FC’s Corben Bone (13) celebrated after scoring their second goal against Sporting Kansas City II during their match at Lynn Family Stadium on Aug. 19, 2020.

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Louisville City FC may be the United States’ model second-division club.

As they head into the U.S. Open Cup’s Round of 16 and look down from their seat on top of the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference, it’s easy to think back to all of Louisville’s success over the last half decade. The Kentucky club has two titles since 2017 and has never failed to at least reach the conference finals in the playoffs. Even with three different managers in that span, Louisville City has been consistently good. 

Here, you can see their points per game relative to the rest of the league over the last handful of seasons. Without fail, they’re at or near the top – and so far in 2022, the club has lost just one game.

What’s behind Louisville’s sustained success? Let’s dive in.

Tactical continuity

In the USL Championship, teams rarely enjoy much continuity. Year-to-year contracts and stylistic trend-chasing rule the day. Louisville, however, bucks that trend with both their tactics and personnel. If you rewatch their 2018 USL Cup victory against Phoenix Rising, you’ll be struck by the use of their current 4-1-4-1 system. The defensive line plays high, the fullbacks push up, and a lone holding midfielder supports the more advanced midfield line of four.

James O’Connor managed the title-winning side in 2017 and introduced those tactics. After O’Connor, John Hackworth managed Louisville for three years. In 2018, retiring midfielder Danny Cruz joined the coaching staff and now he’s fully at the helm. Even still, O’Connor’s style remains.

Here’s a look at Louisville’s 4-1-4-1 in 2018:

And here it is again this season:

The numbers also illustrate Louisville’s tactical continuity and the team’s desire to keep play in the final third.

In each of the last five years, Louisville City has finished in the top five in the league in possession. They’re an aggressive pressing team, too, quickly regaining the ball before going right back to possession. In each of the last two seasons, Louisville finished in the top five for passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA), which is a measure of press intensity.

They clearly have a defined tactical approach, which isn’t something that every team in the USL (or in other leagues) can say.

A core group of players

Looking at their personnel, a longstanding core of players also sets Louisville apart. The cup-winning lineup in 2018 featured Brian Ownby, Niall McCabe, Oscar Jimenez, Paolo DelPiccolo, and Sean Totsch, all of whom are on Cruz’s 2022 roster. Striker Cameron Lancaster, who won the Golden Boot in 2018 and led the USL Championship in goals per 90 minutes last year, is in this year’s Louisville squad as well. 

That core group continues to set the tone in Kentucky. DelPiccolo, a right-sided central midfielder, and Ownby, a right winger, stand out. Both have participated in about 80% of Louisville’s minutes to date this year, displaying a sixth sense for complementary movement in attack. Their level of familiarity is novel in the USL.

Smart roster moves

Still, six players don’t make a team. The last piece of Louisville’s dynasty is their player acquisition model. Season after season, they replenish the squad and subtly tweak their system to accommodate new talent. In 2018, Ilija Ilic played in the attacking midfield line as something of a hold-up-focused attacker. More recently, Corben Bone slid into that line as a true box-to-box No. 8 instead. A deeper-lying back line led by the cerebral Paco Craig turned more aggressive as the rangy Alexis Souahy entered the mix. This year, additions like Amadou Dia, a marauding left back, allowed Cruz to experiment with a back three.

Another part of Louisville City’s acquisition model is a focus on youth. 

Outside of El Paso, no other team in the USL integrates young talent like Louisville. Talented young left back Jonathan Gomez is their poster child. Last season’s Young Player of the Year in the USL, Gomez spent two seasons starting in Kentucky before making a move to Real Sociedad in La Liga.

This season, a cohort of under-23 players acquired since 2020 – right back Manny Perez, wingers Jorge Gonzalez and Enoch Mushagalusa, and leading-goalscorer Wilson Harris – are every bit as important as the stalwarts. Further, their nascent academy setup is paying dividends. Local product Josh Wynder, just 17 years old, is a regular starter at center back and teenage midfielder Carlos Moguel is a rotation piece. Increasingly sensitive to the age of the core, Louisville now emphasizes a fresh wave of talent, integrating it alongside the veterans to maintain a culture and stylistic identity.

Looking at the USL Championship’s current standings, Cruz’s side has a two point lead at the top of the Eastern Conference. That gap may even undersell the difference in quality between Louisville and the rest of the East. After all, they hadn’t lost a game until this matchweek across all competitions.

Familiar players, bright young acquisitions, and tactical consistency led Louisville to success over the last half-decade and continues to do so in 2022.