Confetti rained from the sky. Fans poured onto the field. Teammates hoisted the USL Cup aloft.
It sounds cliche, but this was a team of destiny.
Louisville City FC put the finishing touch on an incredible season by lifting the USL Cup on a cool Monday night at Louisville Slugger Field, with Cameron Lancaster’s 88th minute header the difference between the hosts and Swope Park Rangers.
The win secured a treble of sorts for Louisville City; the regular season title in the Eastern Conference, the Eastern Conference title in the playoffs, and then the overall league championship in the USL Cup.
It’s a culmination of what officially began on February 12, the start of preseason training at the IMG Academy campus in Bradenton, Fla. but what really began the day after LouCity was knocked out of the playoffs on penalty kicks by New York Red Bulls II in the Eastern Conference finals in 2016.
The players, a small squad of just 21 brought in for the start of the 2017 season, were more motivated than ever. Reports out of Bradenton were that the players came into camp incredibly fit and in shape, with everyone surviving the grueling conditioning program under the hot Florida sun. It was there that the aspiration to win the title began to take shape.
“When we got to Florida and we were doing our fitness tests, we were looking around and thinking ‘oh my goodness, we’ve got a team here’,” Louisville City captain and USL Cup MVP Paolo DelPiccolo said. “And it showed.”
Louisville City navigated the 2017 regular season with the poise of a veteran team, flush with three players who earned national team call-ups as well as others with MLS experience. Nearly each of the 20 remaining players played a big role at some point during the season, while the same dealt with injuries or spells out of the lineup.
But through it all, Louisville City kept on winning, snatching its place at the top of the standings in August and holding on with a vice-like grip. Even more importantly, the boys in purple learned valuable lessons from some of their defeats and draws, the product of which was on display late in the season.
Even though the team had one of the best defensive records all season, Louisville City took it up a notch in the playoffs, finishing with three shutouts and a single goal allowed, in the memorable conference finals victory on penalty kicks over New York Red Bulls II, enacting revenge for the flipped result one year prior.
That game, along with others late in the season, was more proof that this team was destined to win it all.
“If you look at us all season, we’ve done well, especially in the Eastern Conference, we won the regular season with games in hand, we’ve been great all season, we’ve kept good form coming into the USL Cup Playoffs,” said LouCity goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh, who made four saves in the USL Cup. “We’ve allowed one goal, it just shows how organized from front to back how good we’ve been. Throughout the season, everyone’s contributing.
“I felt that this was a good year and a good opportunity for us to win it.”
Contributions from across the squad was a major theme this season, and that comes from having a tight-knit group and high character, with guys willing to play their role on the field or coming off the bench for the greater good of the team.
Nearly everyone’s had their moment this season, with Luke Spencer, Brian Ownby and George Davis each having strong spells in front of goal. Devon “Speedy” Williams spent most of the season on the bench, only to come in late and cement a role alongside DelPiccolo in central midfield. And Tarek Morad, who started the year in a two-man centerback partnership with Sean Totsch, was out of the lineup and then back in alongside Totsch and Paco Craig to form a fortress in front of Ranjitsingh.
Perhaps the greatest moment though went to Lancaster, who’s struggled through injuries in each of his three seasons with the club. On Monday night, coming off the bench, Lancaster headed home the game winner, setting off celebrations and a night both the fans and players won’t forget.
“For us to win and score so late, it just makes it even more special,” LouCity coach James O’Connor said.
“It’s a really incredible moment for everyone connected with the club.”