Louisville City FC are the champions of the United Soccer League — again.
Luke Spencer’s 62nd-minute goal was the difference in Thursday’s USL Cup final. With the 1-0 victory, Louisville City is the first team in league history to win back-to-back USL Cups.
“For us, the belief was there from February 1, 2017. We thought we could win it and then we came back this year and we thought we could win it,” said Louisville captain and midfielder Paolo DelPiccolo. “There was never a time in any game throughout the season, games we lost, games we won. We’d always come up and say ‘We could win this thing.'”
On a frigid night at Lynn Stadium on the University of Louisville campus, 7,025 fans braved the cold to watch what was a tightly contested match the entire way.
After heading to the half scoreless, Louisville broke the tie on Spencer’s score. Defender Oscar Jimenez served the ball into the far 18-yard box on a corner kick. The ball bounced around and landed at the feet of Spencer, a forward, who blasted into the bottom left corner.
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“It came out to me and I got a toe on it, but I think I could have done better,” DelPiccolo said. “It set up really nicely for Luke and he took it very, very well.”
Spencer started in place of forward Cameron Lancaster, the team’s leading scorer, who missed the game after suffering a hamstring injury in last week’s Eastern Conference final.
Phoenix was also playing without its leading scorer, forward Chris Cortez, who reportedly also suffered a hamstring injury, this one during practice.
Louisville almost scored again in the 67th minute on an incredible individual play by Brian Ownby. The midfielder took the ball at his own end and dodged several defenders before the ball was knocked away for a corner kick in the opposing 18-yard box.
Louisville City coach John Hackworth said the teams were very even, except his squad “moved the ball the better than they did.”
“I thought that we were able to unbalance them with our ball movement and also our movement off the ball,” Hackworth said. “Once you move a team that much, there’s going to be gaps. We always talk about that — when we create space, we attack it. That’s exactly what we tried to do.”
Phoenix had a number of chances to tie toward the end, including a near bicycle-kick by captain Didier Drogba in the 89th minute. The former Chelsea FC star, possibly playing in his final game, whiffed on his attempt off a dangerous cross.
The team had additional opportunities to score throughout the match, including a few from Drogba. His best chance came in the first half, when he put a free kick on net from 10 yards in front of the half-way line.
After the game, Schantz addressed the future of Drogba, who is also a part-owner of his team.
“We haven’t that had much of a dicussion yet. The only thing we said after the game is I apologized for not giving him the cup,” Schantz said. “In true Didier Drogba fashion, he said, ‘Well done, coach. Keep your head up.'”
He credited the opponents and said he’s going to start working toward another run next year right away.
Earlier: All eyes on Didier Drogba as Louisville City FC goes for USL Cup
“I’ll always be able to remember watching them raise their Cup. That’s a moment I won’t ever forget. It’s burned in my memory,” said Phoenix head coach Rick Schantz. “It’s going to be drive and desire and passion to get back here and lift that cup ourselves.”
Louisville is only the second team to win two USL Cups, joining its predecessor, Orlando City SC, which won the titles in 2011 and 2013 before moving to the higher ranks of Major League Soccer.
The victory pushed Louisville’s playoff winning streak to eight games The team is 11-0 in home playoff games since it began play in 2015.
DelPiccolo credited the success to keeping the team’s core together.
“We’ve had a lot of guys for two years,” DelPiccolo said. “We’re all very committed to what we’re trying do.”
Justin Sayers: 502-582-4252; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/justins.