LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Game day has finally come (back) for Louisville City FC, which started its sixth USL season 127 days ago and emerges from a COVID-19 shutdown Sunday when it faces the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in a 5 p.m. matchup to open its $65 million Lynn Family Stadium.
Most of the advance attention has gone to the surrounding scenario: A rare return with fans, even as coronavirus cases rise in Kentucky and around the country. There is excitement over the new facility — and over a national television audience on ESPN2.
USL President Jake Edwards calls the opening of the new stadium a statement for the future of USL.
"What you’ll see this weekend in Louisville is a showpiece stadium in our league, in the Championship, and I think it’s going to be one of the finest soccer stadiums regardless of league in America," Edwards told Front Office Sports’ Ian Thomas on Friday. "Although it won’t be its full capacity for obvious reasons – there will be some fans there to enjoy that historic moment on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2 – I think if you watch that and look at that building, that is the statement of intent of where the USL Championship is going. That is the kind of investment, a $60-, $70-million downtown stadium, it is absolutely phenomenal, and that is what USL Championship clubs are aspiring to look like by the time the World Cup comes here in six years."
But for LouCity coach John Hackworth and his players, a time has come to focus on the game and not the sideshows. They’ve been back in full training as an entire team for a couple of weeks, and on Sunday he’ll trim down a working group of 22 players to an 18-man roster.
Beyond that, he’s been trying to acclimate his players to a larger, regulation pitch at Lynn Family Stadium, while getting them into game condition, and while preparing for an opponent that has not played this season.
"I think we all need to realize that we’re going to have a lot of sorting out of ideas in those first 20 minutes. Pittsburgh hasn’t played a game at all," Hackworth said. "... We’re going to have to be really disciplined in how we approach this game, especially early. Soccer is a 90-plus-minute match and, therefore, allows us some time. But if you make a mistake early, it can really hurt you. So I expect both teams, while being on national TV, will want to make sure that we display our styles and things like that. I think you’re going to see both teams try to feel each other out early."
LouCity returns an experienced roster that includes 2018 USL Golden Boot winner Cameron Lancaster, on loan from Nashville SC of the MLS.
"I’ve said this to people around the MLS when they’ve come to me, he’s a better finisher than so many guys that are playing in the league currently," Hackworth said. "... One of the most important things for a soccer team to have is a guy who can put it in the back of the net. He’s phenomenal. He’s an artist that way. He doesn’t finish in a normal way. He can take a ball 25 yards out and have his back to the goal, and have a ball that dips amazingly. It’s just a skill that he has that is unique to him. His placement, his accuracy, his timing, his runs, he’s a special player at this level, for sure."
Leadership abounds on a roster full of familiar names. Luke Spencer, Brian Ownby and George Davis IV alongside Lancaster in the front. Paolo DelPiccolo, Mangus Rasmussen, Niall McCabe and Speedy Williams in the midfield. Sean Totsch and Oscar Jiminez in the back.
For that reason, Hackworth says he’s confident his team will be able to handle the surrounding fanfare. He’s just hoping the group is prepared.
"Our roster is absolutely top-heavy with experience," he said. “I’ve said it since the day I got here that it’s a really good group of men to work with because it is so experienced and because they’re so good at being professional athletes. We also have some young kids in our locker room. We have some teenagers. So we have a balance. Our experienced guys hold the younger guys to a certain standard. ... I hope that we will have a feeling walking out on this field that we’re prepared and ready to go to work."
Hackworth said the challenge will be to "manage the game well," to be aggressive without being too eager.
The USL season amounts to a 16-game tournament. LouCity will play its first eight games of the restart at home, but the abbreviated slate also makes each game more important – and makes getting off to a good start essential.
"For every team, that restart is going to be really pivotal," Hackworth said. "Will we be ready? I hope we’re the best we can be. I hope we’re able to meet the demands of that game."
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