Three years of participation in the USL have been beneficial for FC Cincinnati. Paint it any way you like—FCC still advanced further than ever before in the standings this year. The regular-season trophy still has value. Some rivals may brag that it’s not a gold star, but hardware occupies the trophy case.
However, it’s hard to deny that seeing the same names at the top of the marquee at this stage of the season is rough. In all three years of FC Cincinnati’s existence, Louisville City has made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. That alone is frustrating enough, but all three years have also produced the same two opponents in those conference finals. When Louisville has excelled, New York Red Bulls II have been with them every step of the way.
New York won it all in 2016. Lou City took it all in 2017. Now it’s time for the rubber match, and yeah, it stings to watch that from the perspective of the bystander.
There is at least one bright side. Phoenix Rising’s victory against Swope Park means that the West will be represented by a new independent team. While “Team Drogba” took out the Rangers, Orange County SC defeated Reno 1868 to take the fourth and final spot. Yes, the East may be more of the same, but a team west of the Mississippi will get a shot to host its first USL Cup Final since 2014.
This point is where I stop talking about FC Cincinnati. If you’re okay with that, read on, while I take out my crystal ball…
Conference Final Predictions
#2 Louisville City FC (21-6-9) vs. #5 New York Red Bulls II (15-8-13)
New York leads the overall series (4-3-3). However, Louisville is undefeated in the past five matches, including the playoffs.
We’ve been down this road before, and the results have been eerily similar but opposite. New York hosted the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals against Louisville and knotted the game at 1-1 before extra time. Red cards were exchanged without a result, but the Baby Bulls managed a 4-3 win in penalty kicks. The 2016 USL Cup in Harrison was surprisingly well-attended, and New York blasted Swope Park 5-1.
In 2017, Louisville got the opportunity to host against New York and took another early 1-0 lead. However, New York again tied the game in the second half, and extra time was penniless. This time around, New York couldn’t find the frame in penalty kicks, and Lou City took that one 4-3. A late Cameron Lancaster goal was the difference in the 2017 USL Cup, with Lou City beating Swope Park 1-0.
And so the sides meet once again. Fifteen of the 18 players on Louisville’s gameday roster from last year are still on the team. The most important piece, ex-head coach James O’Connor, is now piecing together a broken Orlando City team. Pundits wondered if Lou City was washed up with only player-coaches, but the arrival of John Hackworth has done its job. Since their last loss to FC Cincinnati at home, Lou City has gone 8-0-1, outscoring their opponents 25-6. Their game against Bethlehem Steel FC last week was a relative cakewalk. Midfielder Brian Ownby finally returned to form, pocketing a brace to help Louisville win 2-0.
New York’s squad is almost a complete overhaul from 2017, but essential pieces remain. Andrew Tinari still helms the midfield, while goalkeeper Evan Louro has returned to fine form from his run in 2016. Head coach John Wolyniec is the glue that keeps this team together. During his tenure with Red Bulls II, the squad has been one of the most ruthless offenses in the USL—the team has scored an average of 2.01 goals per game since 2016. (Louisville has scored an average of 1.89 in the same span.)
We don’t need to tell you how the Baby Bulls pretty much dismantled FC Cincinnati in the Conference semifinals. A goal in the 12th minute from Amando Moreno stood the entire way, while the defense rattled the Orange & Blue constantly. Perhaps the 1-0 score is misleading, as New York controlled the ball well in small spaces and slowed the game’s pace to a crawl.
This year’s results:
Past games between Louisville and New York were relative displays of control and defense. The two matches this year were anything but that. In the first June matchup at Louisville, Lancaster put in two quick-fire goals for an early 2-0 lead. However, Louisville played a physical game against the Baby Bulls afterward. The team racked up 19 fouls and 5 yellow cards, while New York dominated possession (57%). It took a late header from Magnus Rasmussen to save a 3-3 draw for Louisville.
It appeared that New York had their own game well in hand back in August. Goals from Tinari and Ethan Kutler gave New York an early 2-0 advantage. However, Louisville pulled off their own offensive counter with a hat-trick from Lancaster. When the smoke cleared, Lou City’s fireworks display gave them the 6-4 win.
Both teams have understandably matured since their last game. Hackworth’s steadiness has given Louisville an eight-game winning streak and a path towards hosting another USL Cup. Wolyniec’s leadership has the Red Bulls on their own five-game winning run. Both teams have displayed immense kinetic energy on the pitch and have put up solid numbers against the other.
While both defenses are likely to be put through the wringer, the deciding factor will be the midfield. While Tinari has become a bedrock for New York, Louisville’s Ilija Ilic has played incredible football this year. His first of two goals against New York patched up the leak in that 6-4 comeback win. The Serbian’s numbers (12G, 11A) would have him in the MVP talks if it weren’t for his teammate Lancaster.
It will hurt the Greater Cincinnati region for me to say this, but I cannot see Louisville caving to the same hijinks that undid Cincinnati’s year last week. While New York enjoys playing a compact game, Slugger Field is made for that kind of close contact. On top of that, this Louisville offense is by far the most powerful it has ever been. Both teams will bomb the goal with plenty of strikes, but Lou City will do one better. Louisville 3, New York 2.
Again, the pain won’t go away after this game. No matter which team wins, they’ll be favored to double their cup total in the final. The best thing you can do is tune out the static and become a Phoenix or Orange County fan next week.
Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more on the USL Playoffs and all FC Cincinnati news as they transition to MLS competition next year.