Louisville City’s 2023 Season Review
Despite falling short in the finals, 2022 was a resounding success for Louisville City. A flurry of roster changes had resulted in record stats across the board and a memorable playoff run. Coach Danny Cruz had seemed to have largely found a roster and playstyle that the rest of the league struggled to beat. With the majority of the 2022 team retained for 2023, fans were optimistic about running it back in 2023 and earning that third star. But then things didn’t go exactly as planned. Injuries, significant officiating decisions, and a wavering mentality all contributed to what may be considered the club’s least successful season. Despite the struggles, the boys in purple still found their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Nin years straight. How spoiled are we?
Heading into the season, several storylines appeared likely to be differentiating factors for the 2023 season compared to years past. Western Conference opposition, tactical formations, the club’s roster stability, and the academy all jumped out as items to keep an eye on. Several of these were touched on a few matches into the year but now it is time to look back at the season as a whole and see how these played out.
Test In The West
Western Conference opponents averaged 1.50 goals against LouCity with an average xG of 1.53. Both of those averages were above Louisville’s season averages for GA and xGA but removing the thumping in Sacramento brings those numbers right in line with the season averages. Winning 7 of the 12 matches put LouCity at a win percentage of 58%, higher than the 41% the full regular season ended as. While there is a case to be made that the West was stronger than the East, it did not appear that was based on the team’s record. Western foes brought us thrilling wins such as COSvLOU and LOUv OAK as well as some of the most painful moments including SACvLOU and NMvLOU.
According to FBRef, Louisville City only played in a three-back on six occasions in 2022. That count increased to ten in 2023 (when including the “back-five” arrangements). An increase from 18% to 29%. An undeniable increase in its usage. Along with more frequent appearances, it seemed to work better. It served as a midseason catalyst beginning with the home LIPAFC where it became more of a regular option through the rest of the season.
Stability vs Heavy Overhauls
While 2022 saw many new faces join the squad, 2023 was fairly stable. Between retaining the “old guard” and the class of 2022, there was reason to be feeling good. To add to it, the few new additions to the mix seemed very promising. While stability has long been LouCity’s bread and butter, a differentiating factor that likely played a big role in their historic success, that did not pan out this season. It’s truly hard to say if it hurt them but there isn’t a big argument that it helped either. Teams that had notable overhauls and were cited in the original storyline piece such as CHS, BHM, and IND (let’s ignore the fact I include HFD in that group) all faired better. The Battery were the biggest beneficiaries but by the end of the season, both BHM and IND were very formable squads. While stability can bring about a consistency that is otherwise hard to achieve, perhaps the most successful roster composition is somewhere in the middle. A stable, consistent core with enough new talent to keep things fresh.
The Rise of The Academy
Elijah Wynder and Carlos Moguel saw considerably more minutes in 2023. They both had less than 600 minutes combined in 2022 but this season they each saw over 1,000 minutes. By the end of the season, Carlos found himself regularly part of the starting eleven. And let’s not forget Josh Wynder’s midseason transfer to Benfica. Between the accomplishments of these three, the academy’s output has been significant considering that it is only a couple of years old. Preseason and the international friendlies against Kaiserslautern and Atlante offered several new faces the opportunity to see the pitch with the first team plus Owen Damm breaking 100 minutes between appearances vs MEM, at LDN, and at NM. There is a lot to be excited about surrounding the academy.
Data Deep Dive
Alright, time to get nerdy and delve into the numbers. If data isn’t your thing, I’d still encourage you to take a peek at the visuals as you skim through. They are busy but I circled LouCity for convenient viewing. There are even more at the bottom of this piece worth scoping out too. Spoiler alert; it's rather disappointing given expectations. Before we get to it, I do need to note that 2020 has been excluded from any historical comparisons. To keep it brief, that whole season is a misleading outlier. Let’s get to it.
Although Louisville City’s shot volume in 2023 (13.50 ShtF/G, 3rd) was comparable to 2022 (14.38 ShtF/G, 3rd), there was a considerable drop off in shot quality as seen in the shots to goal ratio (ShtF/GF) and expected goals per shot (xGF/ShtF). In 2022, LouCity was scoring a goal for every 7.64 shots taken (4th). That skyrocketed to 11.48 in 2023 (22nd). Over 4.5 more shots needed per goal. That puts them at 160th of 181 teams from 2017-2023. Compared to the bar LouCity has set in the past, shot quantity and the shot-to-goal ratio was below expectations.
In terms of xG in relation to shots, they went from 0.128 xGF/ShtF in 2022 (4th) down to 0.100 in 2023 (20th). Both metrics went from some of the best in the league last season to some of the worst this year. Those numbers improved since How’s It Going? Part 2 back in July but not nearly enough. To the team’s credit, the xG per shot was comparable to 2017 and 2018 but there is less correlation between that and scoring than the shot-to-goal ratio.
Expected goals per game (xGF/G) came in at 1.35 which is 12th in 2023 and 96th from 2017-2023. Ultimately, goals actually scored matter more than shots and expected goals. That unfortunately was not a much better picture. The 2023 team scored just 1.18 goals for per game (GF/G). That puts them in 19th for the season and 137th from 2017-2023. The team was quite unlucky and earned the 4th worst GF/G-xGF/G at -0.169. In fact, it was one of the largest disparities 2017-2023 coming in at 152 of 181.
The boys in purple allowed more shots per game (ShtA/G) in 2023 than in 2022 (10.62 vs 8.12), however, they still maintained an average in the upper third of the league (1st in 2022 and 7th in 2023). Shots conceded to goals against (ShtA/GA) was mostly level (9.86 in 2022 and 8.60 in 2023) but did see a year-over-year drop from 8th to 16th. Expected goals per shot against (xGA/ShtA) (0.113 in 2022 (11h) and 0.117 in 2023 (12th)) saw minimal movement from last season. Expected goals against (xGA/G) was 1.24. 6th in 2023 and 58th from 2017-2023. At 1.24 goals against per game (GA/G), Louisville ranked 13th in 2023 and 74th from 2017-2023. This average surpassed the 1.18 GA/G in 2019 by just 0.06.
Home and Away
For large periods of the season, it was perceived that the team was performing on the road. 6-6-5 (W-L-D) and 23 points on the road and 8-6-3 and 27 points at home proves that not to be true big picture. That is 1.35 Pts/G on the road (11th) and 1.59 Pts/G at Lynn Family Stadium (11th). While their Pts/G traveling ranks a respectable 51st, their average at LFS is 98th. You probably didn’t need that stat to tell you that is where the biggest disappointment lies. Almost a full point per game less than last season in Louisville. The once impenetrable fortress allowed 1.12 GA/G (12th, 87th) and only set off the smoke (GF/G) at a rate of 1.18 times per match (17th, 147th). Exactly one more goal conceded per match at home than last season. The 1.18 GF/G (13th,96th) and 1.35 GA/G (13th,122nd) as the away team doesn’t lag as far behind the home numbers as you would like or expect.
Matches of statistical note from this season include SACvLOU (most GA and biggest xGA), LOUvRGV (biggest xGA at home), COSvLOU (-2.52 Pts/xPtS for COS making it the most egregious case of “stolen points” for LOU), and LOUvTBR (most xPts allowed at home).
To sum up all the data, the 2023 season set a lot of bad records. Whether it is points, goals, etc., everything went the wrong direction (significantly) from last season. Most losses, lowest ever finish, first season without a 10+ goal scorer, only a maximum of two consecutive wins, plus a few more I’m sure I’m omitting but too sad to try and find. We knew matching the stats the 2022 team produced would be challenging but even this is far below what anyone would have expected.
What’s To Blame?
So, what do we point the finger at? What factor(s) led us to all the negative records mentioned above? Well, in How’s It Going? Part 2 back in July, I began this incredibly premature postmortem. At the time, injuries, age, tactics, and mentality were all common talking points. You could add the fact there were several egregious and critical decisions (or lack thereof) from the officials that cost the team a non-insignificant number of points on the table but let’s focus on what the team can do or plan better for.
At this point, the discourse on the roster being “too old” has died down and I think it's best off that way. Yes, there are a good handful of players on the wrong side of 30 but simply citing that is discounting the variation in different players' skill retention as they age as well as ignoring the shortcomings of those in more desirable age ranges. The team ended the campaign noticeably healthy but that certainly was not the case through the regular season. The injury list was a revolving door that far too often was of depressing length. Players who would have otherwise had been starting missed matches that they could have otherwise been a difference maker in. Sure, every team can cite this issue to some extent however, the 2023 LouCity team has a stronger case than most. Tactics is an interesting point of conversation. From my perspective, I would not even need a full hand to count the number of matches in which that was a major factor in failing to win. But tactics are very complex and others will be of various opinions. Even with all the factors mentioned in this section, the team still managed to only narrowly miss hosting the first round of the playoffs and ultimately made it back to the ECF. I don’t think it's unreasonable to conclude at a high level that the chosen style of play was a leading cause for the team’s struggles.
That leaves mentality. It was as constant as the injury bug and often cited by Coach Cruz (both in good and bad contexts). I was at or listened to just about every session live this season. Coach Cruz, a former player himself, put a lot of emphasis and focus on the mentality of his players and how they approached the matches. There are razor-thin margins in professional sports and all eleven men on the pitch need to be absolutely dialed in to secure the win. More often than I’m sure he would have liked, Coach Cruz cited it as an issue after a draw or loss. Not all but it was specifically noted in the majority. Listen to the media availability after the NM loss. This was by far one of the most stark examples. Coach Cruz began the season often giving the players the benefit of the doubt but by this point, he was left with little option than to directly express his concerns over the team’s mentality. Guys need to be prepared to give 110% from start to finish and that was not always the case this year. And fans were picking up on it too. Complacency? Overconfidence? A lack of motivation? Beyond the NM post-match comments, the root cause is not likely to be apparent to us outside observers. I already have this pegged as a storyline to follow in 2024. Let’s hope it’s not as frequently a problem as it was this season.
I realize that I am biased towards my club (as we all are) so I often like to get the perception of outside observers. So I reached out to John Morrissey AKA @USLTactics AKA The Hardest Working Man In The USL™ for his thoughts on what to make of 2023 for Morados:
How do you balance a great playoff run with a broadly middling 2023? Louisville finished with a negative goal difference in the regular season and rarely recaptured their classic high-possession, high-press spark. Still, they got to the Eastern Conference Finals again and looked vintage in the dominant win over Detroit. By the standard of any other USL club, this year would’ve been a smashing success, but LouCity is operating in a different stratosphere.
For my taste, the narrative around this team didn’t focus enough on the absences. This team was constantly thin at center back (sorry, Jordan Scarlett) and lost the reigning Golden Glove winner. The next wave of talent - think Harris, Gonzalez, Wynder - was inconsistent and missed time, too. Danny Cruz had an incredibly tall task to thread the needle between old stalwarts, younger players, and new acquisitions like Dylan Mares that never quite clicked.
There are questions to be asked for 2024 in an improving East. Still, given how the year ended - a penalty call goes the other way, and you’ve got a title team! - and some of the mitigating circumstances, I’m not worried about Louisville’s blueprint.
VamosMorados.com Player Of The Year
Before we wrap things up, let's hit one more positive and name a Player Of The Year. In the past, polling has been restricted to a handful of players but this season I left the field wide open. I asked for your thoughts and you answered! I am happy to share that rookie GK Oliver Semmle won with an astounding 39% of the vote! Congrats, Ollie! Historically, this has had a charitable effort attached but unfortunately this year I do not have a cool prize to offer like in years past. With that said, I still want to encourage our fanbase to support some of the team’s ongoing efforts.
The LouCity & Racing Foundation uses soccer to provide our youth with a safe place and the opportunity to dream, thrive, and succeed. LouCity legend, George Davis IV, has done a terrific job of getting out into the community and engaging with local youth.
Coach Danny Cruz has teamed up with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in their effort to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families.
I believe that we have an outstanding community following the beautiful game and I hope that you flex your charitable muscles and help show others we are more than just passionate sports fans!
So where does that leave us? A team with sky-high promise and expectations yo-yos through the regular season but strings together a few wins and makes it back one step away from the finals. While the regular season was historically disappointing, the squad comfortably made the playoffs and went on a run that many other teams would kill to have just once. The legacy of the 2023 season will be a complex one. The gulf between the expectations and the reality-colored perception from start to finish. Yet the team won when it truly mattered. One thing for certain is that it was not the smooth road to glory that we always hoped for. While much of this writing has been not so positive, I’m sure you have picked up on my internal conflict on how to properly judge this team. If this is a “bad” year, then we really have a good thing going for us. With that said, it’s time to turn the page and set our sights on 2024. Let the excitement begin as we will soon be inundated with roster decisions and reasons to be optimistic that it’s our time to add another trophy to the collection.
Stay tuned to this space as the latest and greatest news surrounding Louisville City never stops here!
Want to do a little more reading on LouCity? I suggest the following:
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