Louisville City 2021 Season Preview
The snow has melted, the temperature is rising, and the days are getting longer. Soccer is close. Very close. Between the cold winter and the ongoing pandemic, attending soccer matches again (while observing all safety protocols) will be an enormous relief. As much fun as last season was, ending it on a loss was a disappointment Louisville City fans are not super accustomed to. While there have been a few changes in the squad, the main core is intact and hungry for redemption.
The club has wasted no time. Despite the delayed season start, LouCity is taking advantage of the extra time and is having a long, three-phased-preseason. As of this writing, one friendly is already in the books with a number more scheduled:
March 13 at FC Cincinnati
Former bitter rivals have in recent seasons found common ground with goalkeeper Ben Lundt loaned to Louisville in 2019 and 2020. The reigning USL Goalkeeper of the Year will get his shot at the MLS level this season.
March 20 at Nashville SC
March 25 at Austin FC
Austin’s director of operations, Andrew DiLallo, worked with Hackworth both at U.S. Soccer and LouCity as the club’s former vice president of soccer operations.
March 28 at Houston Dynamo
Forward Tyler Pasher previously starred for the Indy Eleven, while goalkeeper Kyle Morton was a standout between the posts last year at Saint Louis FC.
April 3 at Chattanooga FC
In recent years, it transitioned from an amateur side that produced LouCity midfielder Niall McCabe to a professional outfit.
April 7 at FC Cincinnati
April 11 vs. Greenville Triumph SC
April 16 vs. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
This is expected to be the first home match open to fans for Morados.
It’s worthwhile to note the callable of teams that City has put together for their preseason. Several MLS squads, the USL League One champs, and a strong Riverhounds side. "We've assembled a highly competitive preseason lineup that will prepare us well for the USL Championship's regular season," said LouCity's head coach and sporting director, John Hackworth. "With the majority of our roster back from last year, we're looking forward to finding our rhythm again and working in our new players in the coming weeks." Quite the schedule and indicative of LouCity’s intentions. To paraphrase the great Ric Flair, “to be the best, you gotta beat the best!” Ok, so maybe FC Cindy isn’t the “best” but the financial access they, and the other MLS teams, have allowed them access to more talent than we can access at our level. Should be excellent tests of our squad and their game plans on that fact alone.
While preseason matches are fun and all, we are all waiting for the main event to arrive. This year’s regular season is not a return to “normal” but it is a change from last year:
“Making up the Central Division are the boys in purple — conference finalists in all six of their seasons played — along with rival Indy Eleven, Atlanta United 2, Birmingham Legion FC, FC Tulsa, OKC Energy FC, Memphis 901 FC, and Sporting Kansas City II.”
“During the regular season, each team will play its division opponents four times – twice home and twice away. In the Central Division, the four remaining games will be played against regional or cross-conference opponents.”
It’s not the same diversity of opponents that we would get in a more traditional year, but it is a step in the right direction. While we will be reunited in a group with Sporting KC (who it felt like we played 30 times last season) and Indy (glad they gave us a familiar rival), there are some new faces. Most interesting is the inclusion of FC Tulsa and OKC Energy FC. As they fall fairly close to the center of the country, geographically, they are getting the St. Louis treatment of getting to experience a whole different division.
We can group our opposition into three levels of quality: Poor, Decent, and Good
These are the games that we should not be losing. Even with a few key pieces missing, our backups should be able to fill in and produce a comfortable win. In this group would be Atlanta United 2 and Memphis 901.
According to FiveThirtyEight, ATL2 had almost the worst SPI ranking (a score used to rank clubs quality across all leagues) in 2020, and there is no reason to believe that they will have improved all that much for 2021. With only three wins last season and a -10 goal differential, this will be a matchup where some creative roster decisions could be tested out.
As for Memphis, they had only four wins and a negative seven goal differential in 2020. They may not matter all that much due to the fact they have less than five players signed as of this writing. It’s looking like the majority of that team won’t be back and they are already missing some quality preseason time. They are looking like they will be a bit of a disaster.
These are the teams that may pull out some wins here and there, but should still be manageable opposition. In this group would be Sporting Kansas City II, FC Tulsa, and OKC Energy FC.
LouCity beat SKC2 in all their matches last season, but they were a little tougher than most thought coming in. Got to give them credit for that. They only managed five wins, but they were trapped in a group with City, Indy, and STL. With a few weaker sides in this season's setup, they may find themselves mid-table.
Tulsa will be an interesting bit of competition. They are a team that has traditionally fallen in the west, and thus have not been normal opposition. With six wins and a plus five goal differential last season, they were roughly comparable to Saint Louis last season. The lack of familiarity could pose a problem if the pre-match research and preparation aren’t right, however, Louisville should be able to maintain a winning record against them.
OKC, like Tulsa, is not normal LouCity competition. They fell fairly low on FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings and had a poor 2020 campaign. Perhaps I am being too kind calling them “decent”, however, 2021 is a different beast and I’m erring on the side of caution as to not underestimate (like I did with SKC last season).
These are the teams to watch. The big matches that can really make or break a season. Wins here will go a long way in obtaining the top of the group. In this group is Birmingham Legion FC and Indy Eleven.
Birmingham, a 2020 playoff team, brought in the talented and controversial Junior Flemings to reinforce a powerful side. Given their on-paper superiority to many other teams in the group, expect for their name to be floating towards the top of the table.
Poor Indy. Stuck in a group again with City. They lost some important players but did also bring in a few new ones. Regardless, if LouCity plays their game, Indy will remain in our shadows.
Based on what we know now, Louisville City should have an excellent shot at winning the group. There will be slip-ups and missed opportunities, but expect to see City competing for the top spot. Curious what others thought, I put out a poll for the Twitterverse. Aside from what I can only assume are trolls, it was the level of confidence I expected.
Those I interact with on Twitter and myself clearly have a pro-Louisville bias. So I sought the opinion of someone more neutral. John, AKA USLTactics, put together the below assessment:
The Central Division seems set at the top end with lots of variance at the bottom, as can be seen in the finishing intervals above. Louisville and Birmingham are the absolute favorites; the former is a year-in, year-out contender, and the latter looks super tough on the back of a great offseason. You can worry about the loss of Speedy Williams for Lou City, but Tyler Gibson is a capable stopgap, and John Hackworth deserves the benefit of the doubt after a 2020 with USL’s 2nd-best shot margin and 538 SPI rating. Meanwhile, the Legion brought back their core (Lapa, Lopez, etc.) while adding three all-league players in Junior Flemmings, Phanuel Kavita, and Ryan James. Birmingham might be a defensive midfielder short right now, but they’ll be in the running for the Central title thanks to two MVP candidates in Lapa and Flemmings.
Indy and Tulsa are the next tier down. They’re pretty solidly in the playoffs, but things could go wrong, and there isn’t any title upside. Indy Eleven is almost in a tier of their own in the third-place slot. Losing Tyler Pasher, Andrew Carleton, Drew Conner, and Tyler Gibson entirely remakes this team. I’m very high on new pieces like Gordon Wild and Aboubacar Sissoko. They can rely on a mostly-returned and frighteningly stout defense, but another year of Rennie’s long balls isn’t scaring anybody. Tulsa added really well with guys like Jorge Corrales and Jerome Kiesewetter, but their backline still looks weak even if it’s deep. Lebo Moloto alone makes them a side to watch, but they won’t be a threat come playoff time.
Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta form the next group to my taste. SKC is returning the vast majority of their core and ably replacing Wilson Harris with Ropapa Mensah, but they’re a clear step down from Indy and Tulsa. That said, I love their counter-attacking, hard-pressing style. Elsewhere, I think people really sleep on how poor the Energy was last season. They scored the least goals per 90 in the league while garnering the second least point per match on the table. Seth Moses and Conor Donovan help to retool the defense, but there aren’t goals in this team and you could feasibly see the bottom falling out pretty disastrously. Atlanta picked up a nice piece in Robbie Mertz, but they’re historically a poor club and won’t be much of a factor here. United always pulls an upset or two, so watch out there.
That leaves Memphis, one of the biggest enigmas in the USL. They have four(!) players on the roster, as most teams are firing into preseason mode. The level of investment from the front office isn’t up to snuff for this league in 2020. There’s very much a scenario where Memphis adds a decent unit of proven USL guys in the next month or two and puts together a competent team, and that’s why I gave them lots of leeway in the finishing chart. But if the season started today, this would be the worst team in the league.
There is still a month and a half before USL's play begins. Heck, we don't even have the fully schedules yet! More roster moves can happen, although the bulk of the meaningful signings have likely already happened. LouCity is taking full advantage of the long preseason to prep, but others are doing this as well. Come May, we will see the fruits of their labor. Until then, we will have to wait patiently for play to resume.