What Are They All About? Louisville City FC
Make it count. This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost on the road in Dallas while utilizing a largely experimental line-up in preparation for the US Open Cup quarterfinal. The likes of Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Nemanja Nikolic were rested while attacking engine Aleksandar Katai was used sparingly. The 3-1 loss was to be expected but a few bright spots included another standout performance from Brandt Bronico and a return to form for Mo Adams. In the grand scheme of things, dropping points to one of MLS’ best sides on the road will not make or break the Fire’s season, especially if they beat Louisville at Toyota Park on Wednesday (7:30 CT on Chicago-Fire.com).
Louisville enters this encounter with the tag of underdog, something that won’t phase them one bit as they look at Chicago’s recent Open Cup oustings. A loss to Cincinnati last year, embarrassing performances in the semis against New England, Philadelphia, Seattle, and DC in 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013 respectively, and the infamous indoor loss against Michigan Bucks in 2012 have not painted the Fire in a good light when it comes to important Open Cup matches in recent memory. Louisville will look on that record with fondness and know that all of the pressure is on the hosts to perform in what could be Chicago’s last meaningful match of the season. Will Veljko Paunovic and his charges rise to the occasion, or will there be yet another blemish on the already bespeckled Process? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Louisville Form Guide (all competitions): L-W-D-L-D
Previous Result: A 2-1 loss away to the Charleston Battery.
Formation: 3-4-3; Ranjitsingh; Craig, Totsch, McMahon; Smith, Jimenez, Williams, DelPiccolo; Lancaster, Rasmussen, McCabe
Strengths: Louisville currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference of the USL and are vying for their fourth consecutive playoff appearance, a necessity if they are to win a second consecutive league title. USL or not, this Louisville side are not pushovers and have already ousted an MLS side from the Open Cup, defeating New England in the fourth round. Let’s see where they might succeed on Wednesday.
Lancaster’s Magic Touch: In their recent match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Louisville’s Cameron Lancaster notched his ninth goal of the season to secure all three points for his side. A beautiful strike from about thirty yards out nestled into the top corner of the net as Tampa Bay’s goal keeper looked stunned. Louisville players and coaches, however, have come to expect such things from the England native who honed his skills coming up through the Tottenham Hostpur academy.
He has several goals this season that are up for goal of the year nominations including a bottom corner strike against Atlanta United II, an absolute rocket against New England in the Open Cup, and a forty-five-yard lob over the keeper against NYRB II. Should he win out in Goal of the Year category, it would be Lancaster’s second consecutive year with that honor. He is certainly a player that will need to be watched closely.
Free as a Bird: As the last remaining lower division side, Louisville city has a unique opportunity on Wednesday. They can continue to play without fear as they have done all tournament and take advantage of a Chicago side that suffers from a lack of mentality that has lead to recent Open Cup failures. Throwing caution to the wind and playing the attacking style that saw them beat New England 3-2 and Nasvhille 2-1 could force Chicago to bunker down in a way that isn’t conducive to their style of play. Additionally, continued struggles along the back line, including a lack of chemistry, no signs of consistency in form or personnel, and horrendous individual mistakes, could give Louisville the one chance they need to blow this encounter wide open.
Weaknesses: At the end of the day, Louisville City is still a USL side. The gap in talent between the two leagues is clearly evident and while their victory over a makeshift New England lineup was no fluke, Chicago will pose a new set of challenges. Let’s see where they might struggle on Wednesday.
Get Some Chalk on Your Boots: The system that Louisville utilizes is built entirely on their ability to get forward. Thirty-three goals on the season across all competitions (nineteen matches played) is an impressive tally, but having three at the back has not worked out ideally on the defensive side of things. It is no coincidence that five of Louisville’s six most recently conceded goals have come from build up play on the wings. Kyle Smith and Oscar Jimenez have not tracked back to help Pat McMahon, Sean Totsch, and Paco Craig consistently enough and the dual pivot of Devon Williams and Paolo DelPiccolo are far more concerned with feeding the three up front than they are in shielding the backline. Clever runs from Nikolic, typical wing play from Katai, and a few forays forward from Corrales or Vincent could prove to be enough to send Louisville packing.
One Egg in the Basket: While we touted the attacking prowess of Lancaster above, it seems as if he is their only source of consistency. Ilija Ilic is the only player that comes close to Lancaster’s nine regular season tallies with five goals of his own. The rest of Louisville's goals have come from eight other players at random intervals throughout the season. All of those save Kyle Smith and George Davis’ doubles have been single tallies. An even more damning stat, Lancaster’s twenty-seven shots on target account for exactly fifty-percent of Louisville’s shots on target for the season. If Johan Kappelhof and his center back partner can prevent Lancaster from thriving, Louisville doesn’t have anyone else to shoulder the goal scoring burden.
Goodbye, Coach: Perhaps the biggest weakness that Louisville has entering Wednesdays encounter is the recent departure of head coach James O’Connor. Orlando City offered O’Connor the head coaching vacancy in the wake of Jason Kreis’ firing and the former Orlando City player snapped at the opportunity to ply his trade at the next level. O’Connor’s CV included Stoke City, Westbrom, Burnley, and Sheffield Wednesday as a player before taking a player-coach role with Orlando in its USL days. He led Louisville to all of their playoff appearances and was touted as the mastermind behind their USL Cup winning performances last season. The promotion is well deserved but the fact that he took his coaching staff with him to Florida will not help Louisville in the least bit.
Louisville’s chairman, John Neace, has put senior players George Davis, Paolo DelPiccolo, and Luke Spencer in charge of training, team selection, and matchday operations until a permanent replacement can be found. In a match as crucial as an Open Cup quarterfinal, this situation is anything but ideal.
Prediction: This storied competition means a lot to supporters of the Chicago Fire and they have been through enough turmoil in recent years. There will be tiny rays of light breaking through the darkness on Wednesday. Chicago 4-1 Louisville. Nikolic, Katai, Gordon, and McCarty for the hosts, a memorable consolation goal from Lancaster.