Louisville CIty FC’s first loss to New York Red Bulls II, back in June of 2015, came as the last of four games in 11 days. Tired legs gave in.
Then there was an 86th-minute free kick delivered as the Red Bulls’ game-winner in September of last year. “That still irritates the life out of me,” said LouCity coach James O’Connor.
And in the 2016 home opener, LouCity offered a number of early chances but couldn’t convert against New York. A wind advisory in town that day didn’t help.
The latest chance for LouCity to solve the Red Bulls — the only Eastern Conference team the guys in purple haven’t beaten in three chances — will go down as the most important so far.
“It’ll all be different Friday night,” O’Connor said, with a win for either team clinching a spot in the USL playoffs. “It’s making sure your focus is on preparation and your performance. What’s happened previous hopefully won’t be an indication, because we want to try and beat them.”
For LouCity, a victory would also mean taking back first place in the Eastern Conference with five games left to play. For New York, it would mean holding the lead with a pair of games in hand.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
“The next game we play is always the biggest game of our season,” said defender Paco Craig, “but this game is going to be very, very important and influential with what happens later.”
As LouCity rattled off 17 straight games unbeaten this summer, the Red Bulls chased. Both stumbled in July, losing two straight on consecutive Saturdays. But since then, New York has posted a pair of wins by a combined 10-1 score to top the USL table.
“We respect the fact that they’re on a bit of a hot streak, and they’ve got some lively boys up top,” Craig said. “That’s the kind of players you want to be playing every week. These are the challenges you relish in the championship.
“You want to be playing the teams that are on form and very threatening looking, because that’s far more exciting.”
On a Red Bulls roster with plenty of turnover — such is the nature of an MLS feeder — forward Brandon Allen leads the club in both goals scored (10) and minutes played (1,679). He has plenty of help, with midfielder Junior Flemmings fresh off a USL Team of the Week honor.
But players such as Anatole Abang, who’s reportedly headed overseas after scoring four goals this season, and Derrick Etienne, called up to the MLS side, won’t be with the II team.
LouCity has watched film of the Red Bulls but will focus on themselves after trailing at the half in three straight games.
“For me, definitely, perspective is something I’m pretty good at,” O’Connor said. “I’m disappointed with the first half performances in the last three games, but listen, we’ve had an incredible season.
“I think for us, the focus now is making sure we get a good performance — more of an all-round performance — against New York.”
While the vast majority of Red Bull Arena’s 25,000 seats will remain empty Friday, O’Connor noted New York’s pitch is larger than most his club sees, an advantage for a possession-based attacking style. To add, LouCity’s road record is impeccable.
Veteran midfielder George Davis IV scored twice to lift Louisville over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds the last time LouCity played away from Slugger Field. He said the club’s 9-1-2 record on the road is no coincidence — that a close team becomes more so on its trips.
Will it make the difference Friday?
“We’re fighting to win a championship, and New York’s right there with us,” Davis IV said. “There’s a lot riding on this game. We’re going to treat it just like every other game — go in and try to get all three points.
“…They had our number early in the season, so there’s a bit of revenge factor there on top of the other variables as far as the championship goes. We’re looking forward to it.”