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Preview: Louisville-Pittsburgh will be the best game of the playoffs

Oscar Jimenez and Louisville take on the Hounds at home to start off the 2020 USL playoffs.

Preview: Louisville-Pittsburgh will be the best game of the playoffs

There are teams we don’t like. Games against Indianapolis feature a tandem of irritations – the twin curses of a lot of annoying foulsin addition to those horrendous handegg throwball lines at Lucas Oil Stadium. Games against Red Bull are always just a bunch of buzzing little 16 years olds high-pressing into oblivion, repetitively and ad nauseum. Games against Philly II just aren’t a challenge- I always feel pity for the little buggers.

When the Riverhounds meet Louisville, though, it’s epic. This season, Lou City have only lost three matches, and all three came in the first month of the season. One of those losses was to Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, and that loss was the inaugural game for the Hoopers at their gorgeous new soccer facility, Lynn Family Stadium. Last season, the league-leading Riverhounds were on a quest for their first-ever USL Cup, but their efforts were scuttled when, just two minutes from going to PKs, the Hounds conceded in extratime to give Louisville the win.

The other thing that makes this matchup epic: memory. For a team like Hartford, Saint Louis, or Red Bull, who regularly turn over nearly their entire roster from season to season, the idea of a ‘revenge’ playoff game’ a year afterwards is sort of irrelevant. Nobody was there for the last one. Not so with Hounds v LouCity: the starting lineups from last year to this year will be nearly identical. Ryan James and Kenardo Forbes and Robbie Mertz and Jordan Dover and Steevan Dos Santos will remember what it felt like to have their hopes dashed at the whistle. This game, unlike a lot of soccer in USL, will have emotion and passion and urgency and pathos.

This will not be a soccer game. This will be a Greek battle poem; the climaxing scene in an epic film; an astounding work of heartbreak, or genius, or possibly both.

That is not to say this game will likely be classically ‘beautiful’ or even ‘entertaining’ by the standards of regular soccer fans. If you like to watch beautiful, open, flowing soccer, or if you prefer to enjoy a fun 4 to 3 shootout, I expect you will be disappointed. Both John Hackworth and Bob Lilley have been around a while. They will be pragmatic.

My humble viewing advice, dear friends, is to try and watch this game differently. Give less of your attention to the ball, and the attack, and more attention to the defense. The team that defends better; the team that takes away the ball at key points; will win. Will it be a defensive battle? I don’t know – it depends on pressing and transitions. Anyhow. On to the preview-y things.

Personnel

We played these guys in the first week of the season, and I wrote this about their team, focusing on Corben Bone and Cameron Lancaster. This go around I’ll say some things about some other players.

After rolling out a total-football 4-3-3 for the first half of the season, Coach Hackworth has settled into a 4-1-4-1 that’s a bit more fixed, but also gets results: Louisville have not lost a game since July 30. Part of the change has been moving Speedy Williams back on the field. He’s an experienced Jamaican midfielder, playing as a play-making regista in the number 6 role, with an ability to swing a big diagonal for the wide midfielders to run onto. Sound familiar? Yeah, all those words also could be applied to the Hounds-own Kenardo Forbes. Williams was maybe less effective before, when he was asked to play a do-everything, go-everywhere role – sometimes thought of as the classic ‘number 8 midfielder’ – but sitting deeper and quarterbacking is a good look for him. He’s excellent on-the-ball: pressing and dispossessing him is pretty near impossible. I will say that he’s not quite as reliable with the pass as Kenardo is, so perhaps harassing him and cutting his passing lanes or closely marking the receivers nearest to him could bear fruit for the Hounds.

Oscar Jimenez at Left Back is a defensively sound 30-year-old player and veteran – he’s in his fourth year with Louisville. He’s not flashy or a big threat in attack like Ryan James, but he’s extremely reliable at stopping right-sided attacks. It’s nice to recognize the fellas that just Johnny-Lunchpail their way through life. They show up, do their job, and don’t garner undue attention. LouCity conceded just 12 goals this season – third-best in USL, and the fullbacks earned some praise for that. Also note that, like a lot of teams in modern football, the fullbacks for Louisville often start the attack. The one pass in a buildup that Jimenez plays is often the crucial one in advancing the ball into dangerous space, and it’s often a one-touch pass at that.

Finally, Brian Ownby, a USL veteran that had a good stint in MLS with the Houston Dynamo, is incredibly low-key good. He’s the kind of wide midfielder that you only really see thrive at the lower levels of soccer – a kind of Graham Zusi, but missing some of flair and speed. Fast-enough, but not a ‘dribble at you and unbuckle your pants’ guy. His ability to receive the ball on the move is excellent; his service into the box is excellent; and he has an excellent sense of space. He’s a fine presser and wide defender. And rather than be another soccer bro with a mod haircut or blond highlights, Ownby is rocking an epic Viking/Hipster beard. He may not even start this match – sometimes the Louisville midfield is Hoppenot, Bone, Watts, Matsoso, backed by the aforementioned Williams – but Ownby will definitely get minutes, and will definitely contribute somehow.

Tactics

In their last match against SKC II, Louisville were commited to not giving their opponent any time on the ball. But while some teams press their opponents with three forwards, Louisville like to press with 4 or 5 players at once. That’s risky – against SKC II it resulted in lots of long balls and turnovers for Kansas City – but with any committed press,  if you break it, your defenders are forced into defending at a numerical disadvantage. The Riverhounds are better under pressure than most teams, although some of the Hounds centerbacks are better passers than others. It’s entirely possible that if Louisville press, it’ll only be in specific situations or on some possessions.

A big reason for that – pressing teams are vulnerable on the counter. Which is exactly how SKC got a goal against them last week.

A big reason for Louisville’s success is that they generally have neat and tidy passing. Team passing accuracy numbers can be deceptive, or even meaningless – a team that makes a zillion safe passes in their own half will have nice numbers that don’t really translate to being effective or dangerous. For instance, the top passing team in USL this season is North Carolina FC, and they didn’t make the playoffs. But Louisville were 7th in the league in passing, with an 81%, and to my end, a lot of those passes were with purpose.

Typically, Louisville like to go down the wings or get a diagonal to the wings and over the top from Speedy Williams. Their central midfielders, Bone and either Paolo DelPiccolo or Akil Watts, will pick up the cross, or receive a ground pass from the corner of the box and take a shot, hoping for a put-back. They might also lurk waiting for the wing to dribble in and fake the shot. The Hounds will either need to contain those wings, or mark out those central midfielders. Or both.

The USL’s 2018 Golden Boot winner, Cameron Lancaster, has been a bit less productive this season, with just 10 goals, tied for fifth. He’s a complete forward – he’s fast and can shoot the gaps and break lines, he can poach, he’s dangerous in the air. But generally, Lancaster likes to play deep – he’d prefer to pick up the ball at midfield, facing forward or with a half-turn and dribble at you. Observe:

He will also drop back into the midfield for hold up play, let the wingers advance the ball, and make that second run with the midfielders to get his goal. He will be a handful, and I think he’ll mostly be Thomas Vancaeyezeele’s handful.

Last Week’s Louisville City Lineup

 

Match Information

Date: Saturday, Oct. 10
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Ky.
Television: 22 The Point
Radio: SiriusXM FC 157
Streaming: ESPN+
Live Statistics: USL Championship Match Center
Live Updates: pittsburghsoccernow.com; Twitter at @RiverhoundsSC and #LOUvPIT

image c/o Louisville City FC via twitter

Mark Asher Goodman is a writer for Pittsburgh Soccer Now, covering the Riverhounds, the Pitt Men's and Women's teams, and youth soccer. He also co-hosts a podcast on the Colorado Rapids called 'Holding the High Line with Rabbi and Red.' He has written in the past for the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Athletic, and American Soccer Analysis. When he's not reading, writing, watching, or coaching soccer, he is an actual rabbi. No, really. You can find him on twitter at @soccer_rabbi

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