Growing into his 6-foot-2 frame back in England, a younger Paco Craig was always told by his coach “that for my height, I shouldn’t lose a header.”
Years later, Craig rarely does as an anchor for Louisville City FC’s defense.
Since making his first professional start June 18 in a 1-0 win at Rochester, the 23-year-old has played a full 90 minutes in all but one of LouCity’s games. He does more than fly in on corner kicks, using size to his advantage. The lanky defender also has a knack for making athletic plays that thwart attacks in the box.
“Paco’s been great for us coming in — big guy, technical and very strong in the air,” said Craig’s LouCity teammate, Greg Ranjitsingh. “As a goalkeeper, to have such quality in front of you, it makes me feel comfortable. It makes me feel at ease during the game.
“I’m glad to have the back four in front of me to ease off the pressure.”
In Craig’s six starts, Ranjitsingh has tallied three clean sheets. LouCity nearly notched two more shutouts before giving up late goals in a 1-1 draw July 9 against the Charleston Battery (84th minute) and a 4-1 win July 17 over the Wilmington Hammerheads (88th minute penalty).
All that featuring a rookie not announced as a roster addition until March 14, fewer than two weeks before the regular season started.
“He’s another example of, when you train well, you get an opportunity, and you take your opportunity and stay on the team,” said coach James O’Connor. “It’s not rocket science for us.”
Craig traveled with LouCity to a 13-day preseason camp in Florida before signed along with forward Kenny Doublette and Kyle Smith, a midfielder all his life who switched to right back.
Smith, as with Craig, has taken hold of a defensive starting spot as a new pro. He sits second in the USL in assists with 6 and recently earned USL Midseason Rookie of the Year honors. Craig so far has an assist to go with three shots, two of which he put on goal.
“We always felt as if Paco had the potential to break in,” O’Connor said. “He just had to be patient. He’s trained really well. He’s given some really strong performances in training, which led to his opportunity. Then he’s played very well in the games.”
O’Connor pointed to the draw against Charleston as a potentially Craig’s best outing yet. In the 52nd minute, he took a cross from Kadeem Dacres and nearly finished for his first goal. Twenty-three minutes later, Craig tackled a Battery attacker in the box to prevent an equalizer.
A native of London, Craig is just the latest foreign-born LouCity success story out of Division II Young Harris College. Others from the North Georgia school on the roster are Ireland’s Niall McCabe and Serbia’s Ilija Ilic.
Craig left Young Harris named three times to All-American teams and became only the second Peach Belt Conference player to ever win both the PBC Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year awards.
“I think, all in all, it’s gone really well,” Craig said of his pro start. “Obviously, there’s always going to be that period where I have to make my way into the team. We’ve got a very large squad, so coach has a very difficult job every week.
“I just had to put in as many tough training sessions as I could and bide my time — get patient — and now that I’ve gotten on the team, I’m absolutely delighted.”