LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – As the Louisville City Football Club concluded its final training session of the season on Tuesday, its new coach, John Hackworth, gathered the players to tell them how much he had enjoyed coaching them since taking over the team in August.

The club will play Phoenix Rising FC tonight at 8 p.m., seeking its second straight USL Cup, and to become the first franchise ever to do that. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

That it has put itself in that position despite losing a coach in midseason and playing for a month or so without at a coach at all, is testament to the character of the team.

Hackworth witnessed that first hand.

Often, when a coach leaves, discipline is the next thing out the door. That didn’t happen here. Not with this group of players. Instead, they persevered. Even after wavering, they addressed their deficiencies and rededicated their efforts. George Davis IV, Luke Spencer and Paolo Del Piccolo were dubbed “the triumvirate,” as player-coaches. And the demands on them were great.

But the team held the line, giving management time to find the right person to replace James O’Connor, the only coach the team had ever had, who left to become coach of the MLS Orlando team.

The professionalism required to achieve that is something that's rare -- even in professional sports.

“I just thought I was coming into a really good club and team and community that I need to learn,” Hackworth said. “But most importantly I needed to earn the trust of the players in the locker room. That was my biggest challenge. But the great part was this is a group of men that embraced all of the challenges they had this season."

Hackworth arrived in Louisville with almost a Hippocratic oath approach to the team, “do no harm.”

“When I got here I had no plans to do anything, other than to not change much,” Hackworth said.

What surprised Hackworth was that none of Louisville’s players were satisfied with the status quo.

There is, in all but a special few organizations, a resistance to sudden change. There’s a kind of built-in defense of the way things are being done. Hackworth did not encounter any of that with this group of players.

“They’d been so good on their own,” Hackworth said. “But they said, ‘Hey, what do you got? What can you show us? Where can you take us?’ That made it a lot of fun from a coaching perspective.”

Hackworth tweaked Louisville’s attack, built up a bit more of the attack out of the back, made a few personnel additions. And as the team embraced those changes and understood his vision, it improved from what already was an outstanding side.

“We want to be successful, that’s the mentality of the entire group,” Davis said. “Faced with adversity, it shows character, shows who you are. It said a lot that when the coaching staff left for a better opportunity, it didn’t change anything in our locker room. It’s a credit to everybody in that locker room. And it’s a credit to coach Hackworth and (assistant) Danny (Cruz), who came in and adapted and then helped us and made us improve.”

Six different Louisville players have scored in the postseason, the most of any USL club in the playoffs. Their 11 goals scored in the playoffs are a franchise record. They’ve won nine consecutive games and are 10-0 all-time in playoff games in this city.

And many of them have the experience of having played on this stage last season.

“This whole playoff, these last four weeks for us, have been a lot different this year because we return so many guys and we’ve all been there before,” Del Piccolo said. “For us, we’re kind of trying to replicate a lot of what we did last year and have the same mentality, but we carry a lot more confidence. We know what’s coming. Some of the butterflies are gone this year.”

Louisville may have one more bit of adversity. Cameron Lancaster, the league’s Golden Boot Award winner, who set a USL record for goals this season, is listed as questionable after going down early in the Eastern Conference final with a leg injury.

The team responded with a 5-goal effort to beat the New York Red Bulls II.

“We pride ourselves on not missing a beat,” Davis said after that win. “That’s what we try to do.”

Lancaster is expected to be a game-time decision.

Copyright 2018 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.