By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 16, 2021) US Soccer Players – For obvious reasons, the growth of professional soccer in the United States has largely depended on Major League Soccer over the last two-and-a-half decades. The country’s topflight dominates the landscape with its shiny new stadiums and multi-million dollar expenditures. When the public at large thinks about soccer in the United States, they think about MLS.
However, the professional game is more than the top division. Efforts to fill up the map of the country with new soccer teams are ongoing, with several different competitions vying for the space beneath the MLS behemoth. While the biggest markets make their play to join the big leagues, smaller cities don’t want to be left out of the professional soccer boom.
If there’s a city and a team that embodies the ideal for lower-division soccer in the US, it’s probably Louisville and its USL Championship outfit, Louisville City FC. It’s a remarkable story and an important example for lower division clubs in the United States, but with growth comes growing pains. 2021 is proving that point.
Louisville City is young, like most professional soccer clubs in the United States. Following Orlando City’s entry into Major League Soccer, the USL franchise rights for the Lions transferred to a group that wanted to launch a team in Louisville. Like many cities in America, Louisville was growing and had the type of young, diverse population typically receptive to pro soccer.
The club was a hit from the very beginning. Playing at a minor league baseball stadium, Louisville City quickly established itself as the class of the USL. In the stands, the club drew some of the highest attendance numbers in the league. On the field, it competed for championships, winning back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018 and reaching a third consecutive final in 2019.
Louisville navigated a major change in its leadership when head coach James O’Connor departed to become the field boss in Orlando during the 2018 season. Former Philadelphia Union head coach John Hackworth took the Louisville job a few weeks later. Under Hackworth, the club maintained its place among the elite in USL.
The ambition was more than winning. With the help of Louisville’s city government, the club became one of the lower division teams in America to build its soccer-specific venue. When Lynn Family Stadium opened in 2020, it immediately became the best non-MLS soccer stadium in the country. Although Louisville City didn’t get the grand, full house opening it had hoped for due to pandemic-related capacity restrictions, the building elevated the team’s status the moment it debuted.
Louisville City is making moves into areas that until recently were the sole province of top-level clubs in America. Last year the club opened its academy, fielding teams from the Under-8 level up to U-19. New facilities and a commitment to developing homegrown talent speak to the intent on the part of Louisville’s owners to build a fully realized club that has deep roots in Louisville and its soccer scene. In many ways, Louisville is the future for lower division American soccer.
The club’s investment in its future includes attracting top American talent. In March of 2020, Louisville City signed 16-year-old defender Jonathan Gomez to a first-team contract. A native of Texas and a product of the FC Dallas academy, Gomez moved to Louisville on the promise of playing time and an opportunity to develop under Hackworth. Experience in the US Youth National team setup and MLS convinced Gomez to take a risk by joining a USL Championship side.
Gomez at Louisville was a boon for the club on multiple fronts. He was not only expected to contribute to Louisville’s quest for further championships, his talent made him an obvious target for European clubs. With that might potentially come the type of fee not associated with second division clubs in the United States. That would further entrench Louisville City as the standard-bearer for second division teams in America.
But… those growing pains. A report by The Athletic disclosed that Real Sociedad of Spain’s La Liga is lining up a move for Gomez at a shockingly low price of $100,000. That’s due to a clause that allows Gomez to terminate his contract the season after head coach Hackworth left the club. Hackworth left the team after the season opener with neither the club or the coach speaking publicly about why.
Following The Athletic’s report, Louisville City quickly issued a statement on social media calling the terms of Gomez’s contract a “learning moment.” The post went on to say that the club has been reevaluating “oversight of football” in recent months. It’s worth pointing out that the club signed Gomez for free. No money went FC Dallas’s direction despite that club’s role in his development. In that sense, Louisville City is missing out on what amounts to found money.
Still, this is Louisville City. The club remains one of the best teams in the USL Championship and sits atop the Central Division standings. Interim head coach Danny Cruz, a 31-year-old former MLS player who was serving as the club’s technical director, has done yeoman’s work keeping the club among the USL elite.
No one said it was going to be easy. Louisville City is a wonder in a country that could barely dream of strong second-division clubs with soccer-specific stadiums even a decade ago. This latest issue should only serve to make the club stronger if it can do what it says it wants to: learn.
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Logo courtesy of Louisville City