Louisville City’s unique history is rooted in the club’s immediate success. Beginning play in 2015, the club has made it to the Eastern Conference Finals every season of their existence. Nine straight years (and counting) of not only making the playoffs, but making it one game from the finals. During this stretch, LouCity has made four finals appearances, winning it all in both 2017 and 2018. While their continued success is not currently doubted, it was not always a foregone conclusion. Following their first championship, the club endured one of its most uncertain obstacles. This is the story of three active players stepping up to coach their peers. This is the story of the Triumvirate.
James O’Connor, a former player for Orlando City’s USL Pro outfit, was Louisville’s first head coach when the city secured their USL franchise from Orlando after they left the league for MLS in 2015. Coach O’Connor was able to immediately field a competitive roster in their inaugural season and built upon that, cumulating in the club’s first championship in 2017: a 1-0 victory over Swope Park Rangers (now Sporting KC 2) with an 88’ goal from club legend Cameron Lancaster. With the start of their title defense in 2018 off to a solid start, it was inevitable that interest would grow in the players and staff involved. On June 29th, 2018, it was reported that James O’Connor was to be named the next head coach for Orlando City, with the official announcement coming later that day.
Although Coach O’Connor would still be coaching the match against NYRB2 the following day, the club was put into a challenging position. An assistant coach would usually be an ideal selection to serve as interim head coach while a permanent appointment was determined. However, Coach O’Connor’s second-in-command, Daniel Byrd, was also off to Florida (as would the goalkeeper coach not long after). With options limited, the club opted to take the unusual approach of appointing three members of the team to serve as joint interim head coaches. “Louisville City FC is prepared to proceed with players George Davis IV, Paolo DelPiccolo, and Luke Spencer carrying in place as joint interim head coaches.” An unorthodox decision by the reigning league champs.
As Luke reflected, he, George, and Paolo were approached about assuming coaching responsibilities shortly after news broke of O'Connor's decision to move. “John Neace and Brad Estes brought George, Paolo, and myself into the office and basically said that the club trusts you guys. You guys have a great relationship with the team. We don't want anything to mess up what we have going on here,” Luke recalled. “I give them a lot of credit for seeing the group dynamic.” George echoed the club’s leadership desire to maintain the strong bonds the team developed. “We want to make sure we get the right person,” he shared on the club wanting to take their time in making the right hiring decision.
Although the team maintained a positive culture, Luke, George, and Paolo did have some apprehension about the situation. “How is the group going to respond to this?” George asked. Players' careers and the success of the club itself hung in the balance. “I think we all had concerns about it,” shared Luke, who just accepted his first professional coaching role in Tulsa for the 2024 season. “It's a difficult spot to be in. You are friends with everyone one minute, right? And then the next minute you're put in a leadership position in which you’re responsible for making decisions that impact their livelihood. So there has to be a lot of trust in that. My main concern, everyone's main concern, was how is this going to affect our personal relationships? We have to be careful and we have to be open and transparent.”
Despite the concerns, the trio was bought in on the idea. Paolo, the team’s captain at the time, was adamant about helping to fill the leadership void. “If we're doing this, I'm definitely going to be involved.” The turnaround was quick between the Triumvirate pitch and informing the team of the succession plan. “After the three of us had spoken with John (Neace) and Brad (Estes), we then went into the locker room and just told the guys right there,” recalled Luke. “Luke, Paolo, and I stayed after in the locker room the whole evening. We wanted to speak to the individuals on the team,” George shared. The human component was one of their main focal points and it stayed that way through the duration of their time in charge. “We (the Triumvirate) gave players opportunities. Let's sit down, let's chat. Give us your thoughts. How do you want to play? How do you foresee us playing after this change? What do you like about the team? What don't you like about the team? We were very transparent. I think that set the tone with everyone. We're in this with you guys. We want you guys to be in it with us. This is not our team as individuals. We need you just like you need us at the moment. That set the tone in terms of trust and understanding.”
George, Paolo, and Luke were all talented players; however, coaching is a whole different beast. While the guys were familiar with the tactics and personalities in the squad, they lacked insight on the execution. The nitty-gritty of the coaching role that they often didn’t see. They knew they were going to need some guidance in their effort to continue the success started under Coach O’Connor’s tenure. Although their time was limited, the departing coach was able to give the trio a crash course. Paolo stated, “He was extremely helpful for us to get our feet on the ground and making sure we were all set up. When he was talking to us, it was mostly going through his process, which we hadn't ever experienced. How many games do you watch before you put together your tactics? Do you put together what you think will be the game plan and then watch the games to confirm it or vice versa? Things like that which we didn't have the experience in. Then there's the technical side of it like cutting game. How do you watch the film? How do you cut the film? How do you decide how big the grids are?”
Consistency from the O’Connor era to the Triumvirate era was important. The trio knew that and deliberately made efforts to maintain “the process.” “James is a big process guy. It was like rinse and repeat. We were able to sit down with James in that short amount of time and ask him to walk us through his process,” said George. “One thing we didn't want to do was rock the boat. We weren't Jose Mourinho's at the time like we are now,” he joked.
The Triumvirate’s first big test wasn’t a match but rather training. How was the team going to respond when it came time to be led by their peers? The trio quickly got their answer. Paolo passionately shared his memory of the team putting in maximum effort. “We had guys throwing up, pushing themselves to the limit. Mid-season, fully fit, and guys are throwing up on the sideline. They're pushing themselves that hard for the coaches who are also players. That right there tells the whole story. It could have been so easy for every player to come out there and take their foot off the gas, especially in training.” George confirmed this. “The training sessions were so unique. I remember we were literally trying to kill each other the first week of training. Because it was like, ‘I don't have to prove to the manager I'm good enough. I just got to prove to my teammates that I'm good enough.’ It was a very interesting dynamic.”
But for the trio, their world had been radically changed with the need to balance roles as both players and coaches. “The hard part was that we were also still players,” explained George. “It is very difficult when you're clouding your mind with that much information. You're putting so much focus and energy on that task that you still have to go out and do the job and perform. And that was probably the biggest challenge for myself.” He continued with his recollection of that first practice. “My first training session, I couldn't pass the ball 10 yards. I was all over the place. I was engulfed with the session and being a manager and being a coach. I forgot you have to go and perform and play.”
With Luke Spencer having sustained an injury earlier that June, he took a more visible role as he was not fit to return to the field. “I’m going to be the one on the sidelines making decisions but that’s with a lot of input from George and Paolo,” stated Luke in his first media appearance in the lead-up to the Tampa Bay Rowdies vs Louisville City, the team’s first match with the Triumvirate. Concerning match preparation and planning, he repeated, “The process stays the same.” And yet, even with an inherited process, Luke came into his own as a coach. As Paolo said, “Straight away, you knew Luke was going to be a really good head coach,” he said. “It was incredible to see him work and his thought process. Though we were players and peers at the time, I felt I learned a lot from him. He took the lead on a lot of it.”
As the match away at Tampa approached, they continued to work through all of their coaching firsts. “The first night that we sent out the starting lineup, I felt lonely as could be,” Luke stated. “They always say coaching and leadership is lonely. It was a lonely feeling because you want to play everyone. These are all your teammates and your friends, but you can't. The only way that it worked out was that people were honest, right? And we were honest leading up until that point.”
George recalled the unique pressures that had impacted Luke. “The first time Luke had to announce the team, he started to put together the presentation and I remember we were in his room. He asked Paolo and I, ‘You guys gotta stay with me. Can you stay in the room with me while I send this out?’ He was uneasy and nervous.” They were given leadership and responsibility that very few active players ever experienced. The challenge of being the one to make decisions impacting your friends’ futures is no easy task. But if any active players were capable of doing this, it was them. “The group dynamic leading up to that point made it a lot easier. But it certainly wasn’t a good feeling having to send that lineup out.”
The Triumvirate made their managerial debut in early July at Al Lang Stadium against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. In that first starting eleven, Paolo was the only coach to feature. “We removed myself from the first 11,” George shared. “Let's make sure our structure's good. Let these guys step up. Let these guys take it on.” A 22’ goal from Kyle Smith gave Morados the lead, but a 71’ goal from TBR’s Junior Flemmings leveled the score. It only took a few minutes for Cameron Lancaster to find the back of the net off a beautiful freekick that would give LouCity their 8th victory of the season and an uplifting start for Luke, George, and Paolo.
“It feels good,” Luke calmly shared after the win. Looking back, he recognizes the magnitude of the match for the team. “It was a big statement. I think there were a lot of question marks surrounding the group. ‘How's this going to go? Are they going to be able to do it?’ Some people are thinking that it was crazy. To go to a place like Tampa and get a result in that situation solidify we can do it. We can get through this.”
Luke described the opportunity to manage “an honor” when inquired about the Triumvirate’s opportunity following the win over Tampa. But the focus quickly turned to the team’s next match. Another one on the road, this time to Charleston. Paolo reiterated the plan was to stick to the existing formula. “The idea was to keep doing things the same way,” Paolo stated in the leadup to the CHS match. Unfortunately, that did not yield them a win in the Triumvirate’s second match. Despite a dominating 71% possession, the Battery secured a 2-1 win over the boys in purple with two goals in the first half and Louisville’s lone goal, an own goal late into the match. To make things worse, Oscar Jimenez was shown a red card in extra time.
With that loss, the team’s record fell to 8-2-5 (W-L-D). “Can we maintain the discipline? And that was big from the ownership,” said George. “You guys can go on and do this, but don't go getting red cards.” Luke joked, “We laugh about it now because that was the one thing we were like, ‘Guys, this can't happen.’”
07/18/2018 – CHIvLOU – US Open Cup
There was little time to dwell on the disappointing CHS match as LouCity had a huge opportunity awaiting them in the form of the US Open Cup’s 4th Round which would see the Kentucky team heading north to try and take down an MLS foe. Luke acknowledged the obvious challenge of taking on an opponent one step up the soccer pyramid, but he also addressed the greater impact the match and cup runs have had. “Added games, added minutes, but our guys are up for it.” That Wednesday night match in Bridgeview did not go in favor of the underdog, as the Chicago Fire won decisively 4-0. Late red cards being shown to Kyle Smith and Magnus Rasmussen didn’t help the 4th year club’s chances.
The team had lost two games in a row, but in terms of a coachless team being run by a group of players, Luke shared that the gang was adapting. “George, Paolo, and I have ironed some things out in terms of who’s going to be doing what, and we are getting more efficient as time goes on.” What he didn’t share at that time were the mind games they could play. “It was hard for other teams to wrap their heads around it. I can't tell you how many games we went to and the opponent in the warmup and they're looking at us. They're like, ‘How are you guys doing this? How are you training?’ They just couldn't understand it. We'd play the whole sob story. ‘Yeah, it's crazy.’ Knowing full well that it was about to be a game. That process was enjoyable.”
Louisville City’s match against Charlotte Independence on July 21st was the first match back in Louisville. And what better way to get back on track after a heavy loss than with a decisive victory of your own? The Triumvirate-led Louisville City crushed Charlotte 4-1 with CLT’s lone goal a mere consolation prize at 90’. Although it was a needed rebound win, Paolo shared that the team’s emotions on the result were not completely obvious. “We were coming off that loss to Chicago. We were talking to Greg (Ranjitsingh) and he was saying for him to get to the next level, for goalkeepers, people care about shutouts and stats. So, we made it a goal as a team. We need to get a shutout for Greg because Greg needs to be in the MLS. And if this helps him get there, we are getting a shutout for him. So we play this match. We're up four zero in the 89th minute and Jorge Herrera gets the ball to the top of the box. He turns and puts a peach in the top corner. For one, the game's over. We're going to win. But now it's four to one instead of four to zero. And in the 90th minute, everybody was frustrated and mad at themselves. ‘What could I have done?’ It was a beautiful goal. But you're talking about a team that's going to win the game four to one who is more mad that is four to one than it is four to zero. That tells the whole story. It's just guys were just wanting to get this one win for Greg.” Thankfully, Greg did go on to make it to the MLS.
Before crossing the border for a match against the Ottawa Fury, George Davis got his time with the media and spoke on his coach’s departure and the new role he has found himself in. “There is definitely a sense of freedom,” George commented on the team post-Coach O’Connor. “But we have to manage it.” He said the trio was enjoying and embracing the opportunity and acknowledged some of the challenges, such as managing time and the lessons previously shared by coaches. On their teachings on the importance of mentality and workrate, he stated, “They were right.”
That match in Canada went well for the reigning champs as they secured a 3-0 win, the teams 10th, with goals from Paolo, Paco Craig, and Devon “Speedy” Williams. Alexis Souahy’s red card, only a few matches removed from Oscar’s, was a blemish on an otherwise successful match. Luke acknowledged the physicality of the encounter and said, “Our players have to be above it.” Red card aside, he looks back at that match as being particularly memorable. “It was a tough place to play. I remember how much fun everybody was having in the celebrations and how together everybody was. Just the joy everybody had after that game. It was memorable for me.”
With five matches having been played under the guidance of George, Paolo, and Luke, the team had won three of four league matches. In the days following their latest victory, the new head coach was announced. John Hackworth, whose experience included Wake Forrest, MLS’s Philadelphia Union, and most recently the U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team. His obligations with the U-17 team prevented him from immediately joining the squad. He would not take the reins until 08/13/2018, meaning that the Triumvirate would need to hold things down for the next two matches.
First impressions matter, and James’ successor earned the trios' vote of confidence. “My first meeting with Hack (John Hackworth), he had way more questions for me than I had for him. He demonstrated a lot of humility in that moment. So that gave me the feeling that I think he would be a good fit,” Luke recalled.
George had similar thoughts. “I give Hack a lot of credit for the way he approached us when he came in. When he first got hired, we made contact right away. We wanted to make sure he's included in everything that we have going on from the tactic to the training session plan to our game plan. He kind of stayed out of it. He just soaked it all in. He was just trying to understand the group, understand what we had and how we were trying to play.”
The second-ever Louisville-Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest (LIPAFC), and the first at home (in the modern era, obviously), was the Triumvirate’s second-to-last herald before the start of the Hackworth era. “Revenge is definitely in mind,” George said when reminded of the loss in the previous meeting with the Indy Eleven. LouCity didn’t quite get their revenge as the match ended 2-2 with a penalty stop by Greg Ranjitsingh at 73’ helping the team to retain a point from the encounter.
In the lead-up to the match with New York Red Bulls 2, George had the opportunity to reflect on the unique position that he, Paolo, and Luke got to occupy. Managing emotions and relationships were some of the bigger challenges in adjusting to serving as a coach. But it was made manageable by the comradery and close connections for all those involved. The player-led Louisville squad made sure that their peers ended their tenure with a bang. It was a wild 6-4 win for Morados with a Cameron Lancaster hat trick and Luke making his first return to the pitch since his injury prior to Coach O’Connor’s departure. Luke was all business after the match but acknowledged that he was happy to see the field. A wild match was a fitting end for the Triumvirate.
Although returning to the pitch from an extended injury is a memorable moment for a player in its own right, this return stuck out for Luke for other reasons as well. “The whole time, I'm rehabbing while I'm doing this (coaching) to get back from a knee injury and all the players kept asking me, ‘Luke, when you're healthy, are you going to sub yourself in?’ I didn't put any thought into and then the moment came against New York where I was healthy. I was training. I felt good. But I wasn't out competing other players at that moment. I was still trying to get back to sharpness. But the way that the roster was and our injuries at the time, we didn't have enough players. So, I had to dress. And then Niall is looking over at the sideline and he's like, ‘I don't think I can go.’ I'm the only attacking player left. It just made sense for me to go in. But this whole time as I'm getting closer to being healthy, Brandon Morris was saying, ‘Hey, Luke, if you need somebody to stand on the sideline, I got you.’ The moment came when I subbed myself on and sure enough, Brandon Morris, his moment is there. He's the gaffer. That was probably one of my favorite moments.”
The importance of that weekend extended beyond the pitch as well. “The New York trip, man, that was one of the best dinners I've ever had in my life,” George recalled. Paolo told the story of why that weekend was so meaningful. “John Neace had organized for us to go stay in the city at a nice hotel and have the whole day in New York the next day. Have a nice dinner with him and then fly home. That weekend that we'd all been looking forward to was going to suck if we lost. No one was going to have fun. It was extra motivation. Things go way wrong in 10 minutes and then we just fight back,” he recalled. “Everyone goes out in the city and explores through the morning and then we all go to dinner at night. John got us organized at this awesome restaurant and we have the karaoke machine the Jamaicans are emceeing. Speedy (Devon Williams) and Franno (Shaun Francis) are over there, being the emcees and bringing life to the party. We must have been at this dinner for three to four hours. Other than my wedding, this was a top two or three nights of my life. It was so much fun. I wish that there had been a camera crew at this dinner. We're all USL players. We never had a proper steak with a good bottle of wine. We were singing and hooting and hollering. It was still one of the best, best nights of my life.”
“It was a special moment in my life” Luke stated thinking back to that period. Paolo shared a similar sentiment, “I think it was such a unique situation that is something that I don't know will be replicated ever again.” Talking with all three members of the Triumvirate five years later, they all shared just how unique the locker room was during that time and how the cohesiveness of that team allowed for such an unusual arrangement to work. “Imagine if your coach walked in and said, ‘Hey guys, you have to coach yourselves.’ How many players would step up?” George asked. “It was remarkable in terms of the group of guys that we had, the type of team we were, and the level of trust in the locker room.”
Serving as player coaches is a unique opportunity for active players. Their time as a part of “the Triumvirate” had a lasting impact on George, Luke, and Paolo. “It opened my eyes to the influence of a solid coaching staff,” said George. He continued, “It just gave me a whole new appreciation for what is required to be prepared. As an individual, it's easy to get prepared for training. I eat good, I sleep good, and make sure I do my necessary tasks before training. As a coach, you're looking out for 25 other players. You have to make sure your staff is organized. You have to make sure they know their responsibilities. You have to make sure the field's set up properly. You have to make sure you're getting out of the session what your aim is getting out of the session. It's one thing to set up the exercises, but are you providing the players with the environment and the space to bring out the necessary elements of the game that you're trying to teach? That is not easy.”
For Luke, the experience gave him a greater appreciation for what they had in the locker room and an increased desire to maintain it. “I think it made me more protective. I had more of a mindset that was looking after everyone else. Trying to protect what we had going on. I knew the group dynamic and how special it was. I didn't want anything to get in the way of that. So, I went back to a player, instead of being that typical striker, ‘I need to get my goals. I need to score’ which I still had that mindset, but it was more, ‘How's the group playing?’ That kind of shifted my focus a little bit.”
Being part of the Triumvirate was a good use of Luke’s time injured. After returning, he acknowledged that his role within the team had shifted. “Cam's crushing it and the team needs him to. When I came back in, it was more, ‘I'm going to be the second option when Cam has gassed himself out. I'm going to be that spark off of the bench.’ Coming back from an injury and coming back from coaching. That was probably the best role for me that I could have asked for.” That “spark off of the bench” went on to score the game-winner in the championship match that season. Along with the immediate impacts on his career, it helped to reinforce the direction he wanted to go in the future. “To get the opportunity and to enjoy it as much as I did was just confirming that's what I wanted to do,” the new Tulsa assistant coach said. “Going through all the preparation for training, all the preparation for the games, all the meetings and communication and all of that. It gave me an insight into what it takes. I had been asking James a lot of questions even before that because I did want to be a coach before that. But that experience just gave me more insight into what the life is like.”
George, Luke, and Paolo all emphasized the human component of the situation. The X’s and O’s and lineup choices were secondary to the culture and mentality. “Those are relationships that are so much deeper than teammates,” Paolo explained. “For two months, you actually were playing for your teammates and it was incredible.” All three praised the group for buying into the unorthodox arrangement and supporting their efforts to see the team through the leadership change. “I think everybody underestimated that the best part about that situation was not any recognition or attention,” Luke said. “It was literally the memory. I can't tell you how many times we get back together with players who were in that locker room. It's nice to have that common bond. That was truly special.” George reinforced the lasting bonds the trio has. “I know I can call those guys anytime and they'll give me the truth. So that's one thing I'll never forget or take for granted.” Solidifying lifelong friendships all while securing the club’s highest win percentage for a head coach(es?) (excluding Brandon Morris' 100% win rate, of course). Not too shabby of a run.
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Our recent interview with Head Coach Danny Cruz is certainly worth the listen!