While we patiently wait for more Louisville City news and the 2021 season, I have a surprise! For those of you who are regular users of Twitter and followers of all things Lou City, you are likely familiar with the work of @USLTactics. The brilliant mind behind this account is responsible for many fantastic analytical and tactical breakdowns of performances in the USL (as the account name implies). If you not already following this account, you really should be! @USLTactics was gracious enough to take the time to do an unbiased deep dive on Morados's 2020 season. I this review, you will not only find assessments of the team's performances but also thoughts on some roster considerations for next season. Read about our squads play in depths you have not seen before! Without further ado, I give you @USLTactics's Lou City 2020 season recap.
Louisville City had another excellent season, one that saw them start slowly after the COVID-19 hiatus before recovering to make a deep playoff run. I want to look at some of the tactical changes that facilitated this recovery, and I also want to make some suggestions for improvements and personnel additions looking forward to next season.
By the end of the year, Louisville had settled into a typical starting eleven with a formational system to match. The setup looked something like this:
Earlier in the year, Matsoso or Thiam got some starts on the wing and Charpie, Ockford, and Watts were occasionally preferred in defense, but this was the starting unit when Louisville’s form took off. The continuity at the end of the season allowed Coach Hackworth’s men to really get comfortable with one another, and it showed come playoff time.
Across the whole campaign, Louisville’s stats looked like this:
The team’s profile is really good indicator of how the season went. Louisville City led the league in chances created, and they were in the 90th percentile or better in terms of shots-on-target margin and goal difference. The offense was good (1.75 goals per game), but the defense was elite (0.75 goals against per game). For reference, that goals against number would be leading England’s Premier League with ease right now.
Louisville ranked highly in shots against per defensive action, meaning that Totsch, Souahy, and company put in many more blocks and clearances than they allowed shots. This is a sign of effective defending. City finished mid-table in terms of passes allowed per defensive action, which measures the intensity of a team’s press. A more aggressive team puts in more actions per pass. The press wasn’t very high, as Hackworth preferred to sit back in a mid-block with the wingers withdrawn and absorb pressure. This setup provided structure and stability, minimizing errors. In terms of fullback play, Oscar Jimenez tended to be a more advanced attacker than McMahon on the opposite flank.
Offensively, City was one of the most ball-dominant, ground-based sides in the USL. They were top three in possession and bottom three in long passes played, indicative of a side that kept the ball on the ground and built patiently. Within this philosophy, there was room for tactical flexibility. In certain matchups you’d see Cameron Lancaster play as a deeper creator with the wingers stretching the defense. Other games saw Bone and DelPiccolo press up as attacking #10s while the wingers took up a more withdrawn role. This adaptability let Louisville react and position their talent to match any opponent.
When you look at the season on paper, the initial struggles look especially confusing. Louisville took four out of fifteen possible points to begin the campaign, losing to Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Saint Louis in the process. What went wrong here?
The Pittsburgh match was an especially interesting example. After a quiet start, Bob Lilley’s men pressed high and hard post-water break, pegging the hosts back and creating turnovers high up the pitch. You can get a sense of this setup in the graphic below:
Pittsburgh scored three successive goals around the halftime break, and they were able to settle into a defensive shell afterward. There were a few obvious issues from Louisville’s perspective, especially in buildup. The fullbacks, positioned higher than the back line but not quite at midfield, were relatively isolated. Speedy Williams, who usually drops between the CBs to ease play, was covered well, and deep drops from midfield were smothered by Pittsburgh’s man-marking midfielders. Hackworth didn’t have a tactic to counter the press, and this wasn’t City’s best performance by any measure.
Still, the SKC and STL matches were a bit misleading on results alone. Louisville outshot Saint Louis by a margin of 19-7 (4-2 by shots on target) and Sporting by a margin of 21-9 (9-3). Poor finishing and defensive mistakes were the big differentiators here. I’d chalk the defensive struggles up to rustiness and adjustment. It took time to find a post-hiatus groove and settle on a stout unit. On the other end of the pitch, Cameron Lancaster started the season slowly. He scored just one goal on fifteen shots (6% conversion rate) in those three losses. By comparison, he scored on 15% of his shots in Nashville last year and would go on to strike at a 17% clip for the rest of the 2020 regular season. The chances were there for him, and the tactical decision to drop Hoppenot and Ownby deeper was a major reason why. You can get a sense of this trend in the following clip:
By midseason, the side’s form had really improved. Hackworth settled into the starting XI that I mentioned from the top, and you started to see some excellent individual performances across the board. The mid-August match against SKC was one standout in this regard. A youthful Sporting side came out with a very aggressive press, but Speedy Williams put in a masterclass in composed ball control. Williams completed 61 passes on 87% accuracy in this one, adding three tackles and an interception for good measure. You can see his pass map below:
Cameron Lancaster also stood out here, regularly sliding into midfield to present himself as a long-ball outlet against the press. That wise tactic directly led to this lovely goal:
An undefeated season series against Indy was another highlight of this stretch. The Eleven played Louisville close in a few matchups, but Indy was obviously a class below. Luke Spencer and Napo Matsoso started in the second matchup, but Antoine Hoppenot’s performance stole the show. He moved into a free-wheeling false-nine role around the 60th minute, tearing Indy asunder to give City a 1-0 in a performance that deserved a wider margin:
In a rematch a week later, the Eleven came out with a more defensive midfield trio and pressed higher in a man-marking setup. Indy was disorganized thanks to the sudden changes, and Louisville pounced on every gap to go up 3-0 by halftime. You can see their killer passing and use of space in the clip below:
Near the end of the regular season, City all but locked up a playoff spot with a 3-0 win against Saint Louis. The now-defunct Missourians earned a few chances, but Souahy and Totsch were excellent at the back in a dominant showing. Riffing on the usual 4-3-3 shape, DelPiccolo and Bone pushed up in both press and buildup as Matsoso tucked deeper on the right and Jimenez joined the midfield on the left:
Saint Louis’ CMs were constantly struggling over whether to press or mark Louisville’s attacking mids, allowing Jimenez and Matsoso to pick up the balls in their respective half spaces. Bone and DelPiccolo were seriously fantastic in this one, constantly moving into space and dragging Saint Louis’ defenders out of position.
When the playoffs rolled around, Louisville was in excellent form. The first-round victory over Pittsburgh was a tactical masterclass from Coach Hackworth, and you can get a sense of his game plan below:
This time around, Pittsburgh played two strikers and pressed right out of the gate. Louisville changed things from the previous matchup by dropping their wingers deeper defensively and playing their fullbacks higher in buildup. When Louisville had the ball, the Riverhound wingbacks could cover the long-ball options at the halfway line or step up to Jimenez and McMahon to press. Pittsburgh chose the latter, and City punished them by playing long down the channel to Antoine Hoppenot and Cameron Lancaster.
Facing another pressing side in the next round, Louisville came out with a similar setup. This time, they tucked their fullbacks in centrally and created all sorts of havoc against Saint Louis:
STL played with an extra striker compared to the late-season matchup, but they were still overwhelmed in the middle. City was confident and assured, moving with purpose to create overloads against Saint Louis’ forwards. Their commitment to the press let Louisville break with ease once they worked past the first line of defense, and the 2-0 score line belied a dominant performance.
Where did things go wrong against Tampa in the Eastern Conference Finals? The Rowdies pressed out of a unique 3-1-3-3 shape, man-marking Louisville’s movement up the pitch and stifling the central fullback tactic from the round prior:
City responded by dropping their wingers even deeper than usual:
Tampa held firm even as City pressed higher and threw on a second striker. To me, the big issue here was an inability to pass through the press. Saint Louis could be overloaded in the middle, but Tampa’s man-centric system was too much for Williams, Totsch, and Souahy to work past. You can say that Bone, Hoppenot, and others were mediocre in this one, but the issues began at the back.
In terms of improvements, I don’t think there should be a rush to mess with a really good thing. This is a talented side with a strong core, and a few targeted changes are all that’s needed to stay into title contention. There are three areas of need by my reckoning: forward, center back, and right back.
Let’s start with the striker discussion. Luke Spencer was a servant for the club, and his headers and holdup play stood out. Louisville could easily follow that mold when looking for a replacement. Two candidates that stick out are Tobenna Uzo and Ben Spencer. The former registered only about 150 minutes for FC Tulsa this season, but he scored headers for fun this season and earned the goal of the year with one. He’s somewhat unproven, but there’s definitely hold-up talent there. Spencer is a bit of a journeyman, having bounced between MLS, NASL, and USL opportunities after some youth hype. He got time for San Diego early in the season and would be a fine “break in case of emergency” backup.
Still, I would aim higher if I were Louisville. A true poacher could partner with Cameron Lancaster up top and would suit a team that’s drowning in creativity. To that end, I would take a look at Tyler Blackwood and Irvin Parra. Blackwood was Saint Louis’ leading man this year, and Parra fell off the map this season with San Diego but scored 15 goals in 31 matches for Las Vegas in his prior stop. Both can lead the line and free space for Lancaster.
The next need for Louisville is a central defender with ball skills. As seen in the Tampa loss, there’s a clear need for a line-breaking passer to facilitate buildup against elite pressing teams. Totsch’s passing is solid, but I don’t think Souahy offers enough drive at times. There are plenty of routes City here. El Paso plays a pass-heavy system, and their Mechack Jerome would be my absolute number one pick. He’s technically brilliant and defends with intelligence. Two other options in this mold are Sam Fink, formerly of Saint Louis FC, and Aaron Maund, a free agent for Charlotte. Fink and Jerome can spearhead play from the back and control the tempo, while Maund is less patient and more incisive. Crucially, all three names here are genuinely starting-caliber USL defenders.
One other area of need is right back. Pat McMahon has been excellent for a long while in the league, but he’s 34 years old and doesn’t provide much offensive spark compared to Oscar Jimenez on the left. As a result, you end up with an unbalanced setup with much more danger on the left, in turn forcing players like Brian Ownby to drop deeper in support on the right. There are plenty of options to rectify things on Louisville’s current 2021 roster.
Akil Watts gives you a comparable passing profile with a more athleticism and a penchant for overlapping runs. Still, I’d argue that he’s a worse defender than McMahon, and he may be more comfortable centrally. Jonathan Gomez is another tantalizing alternative. He’ll be out the door to Europe sooner rather than later, but the 17-year-old has already shown attacking potential and elite crossing stats in limited minutes. Looking outside, free agents Paris Gee and Brent Richards (both 80th percentile or better crossers) are decent picks as well.
Bringing back Speedy Williams and filling the hole at goalkeeper are two other moves that I’m less worried about. I’d be shocked to see Williams go, but nothing formal has been announced yet on that front. At the back, Ben Lundt is back to Cincy after his loan. The former USL side could look to loan him out again, but they also released Spencer Richey if Louisville needs new blood. Greg Ranjitsingh was just let go by Minnesota, and he could be an even better fit if there aren’t MLS options for him. I was hopeful that Indy’s Jordan Farr could get a look-in, but he re-signed to back up Evan Newton yet again. Ultimately, giving Chris Hubbard a chance might be the most sensible choice.
In the grand scheme of things, this was a very successful year for Louisville City. Despite a slow start, Louisville rounded into great form by the end of the season and finished with as many points as anyone team in the East. There was a clear system in place, one that could dominate in possession or react with guile against a press. While I can see a few spots for improvement, I’m bullish on City’s chances to be right back in title contention even with minimal changes. Coach Hackworth has proven himself to be one of the USL’s best managers, and stalwarts like Lancaster, DelPiccolo, and Jimenez assure a high level of performance for 2021 and beyond.