By Andrew Bell
Louisville City FC defeated Orange County SC by a 3-1 score away from home Saturday night in the teams’ opening USL Championship match of the 2023 season, ringing up LouCity’s first three points in its campaign for a third star.
LouCity took the lead in the fourth minute when veteran winger Brian Ownby received possession down the right channel, chopped the ball onto his left foot and floated a pinpoint cross to the back-post where midfielder Niall McCabe nodded City’s goal register open for the season.
The game was leveled before the half, however, after neat buildup play and a streaking run from Orange County’s Kevin Partida saw the midfielder slam the ball into LouCity’s net upon entering the box. LouCity reclaimed the lead once again in the 57th minute when Ownby slid the ball across the box to Cameron Lancaster, who left his right foot behind to shape the ball around the tracking defender and into the side netting.
After a sequence of Orange onslaughts, City found its cushion in the 88th minute when second-year winger Enoch Mushagalusa pushed the ball past a defender in the box and whipped the ball home through an ever-closing angle.
“[I’m] really, really proud of the performance,” head coach Danny Cruz said of his team after the game. “When you look at how many players we had out, when you look at the travel against a good opponent — Orange County was good tonight in their game plan — I felt really, really proud of the mentality from the group.”
In the teams’ only other meeting, LouCity similarly, defeated Orange County, 3-1, last June. While it will be difficult to replicate LouCity’s opening stint of the 2022 season, which saw the boys in purple go 10 games undefeated, a league-high 21 players returned to the club this past offseason. That means City’s core is back to go one further than last season and win the league.
Fear the beard
Last season, LouCity could be seen terrorizing teams on the attack and plowing its way toward new club records. In a frightening display of offensive output against Orange County Saturday night, the boys in purple don’t seem to have lost any momentum in that respect.
At the center — or rather, the wing — of LouCity’s offensive engine is Ownby, who appeared in a more free-roaming role against Orange County. That allowed him to play on either side of the pitch, depending on where he felt the opposition was the weakest at any given time. The 32-year-old’s heat map even shows him in centrally attacking areas at many points in the game.
“Brian was fantastic,” Cruz said about Ownby’s unwavering performance. “You could see it. He was hungry the entire evening. He’s had a good preseason for us, he was a good leader tonight on the field as well. I think he’s a huge difference maker. From a mentality standpoint, that’s everything that we want here.”
Ownby recorded a pair of shots, crosses, and assists each while his link-up play with outside back Manny Perez allowed Ownby to glide into free space before receiving the ball. Often finding space off the shoulder of Orange County’s outside backs, the winger heavily contributed to his team’s total 17 crosses and 5 corners.
Ownby also went off for a time during the first half. Cruz said the forward absorbed a hit so bad it broke through his boot and caused a gash in his foot. Ownby came back on until subbed in the 83rd minute and could be seen with a hobble after the final whistle.
“The fact that he was able to finish the game,” Cruz said, “it shows his mentality.”
What we learned
After taking the lead, LouCity invited Orange County back into the game through relaxed pressure and spotty defending. Cruz’s halftime talk must have helped, as the boys in purple looked sharper behind the ball over the final 45 minutes barring a few defensive scares.
Speaking on some lapses in defensive fortitude, Cruz said, “I think I look at the positives from it, which was there were constant guys putting their bodies on the line, trying to block shots. We were certainly under pressure there and I think we fatigued there toward the end.”
Urgency when defending and when in possession is crucial to prevent a relapse of the 2021 season when 60% of LouCity’s conceded goals happened in the last 15 minutes of each half.
The center back pairing of LouCity veteran Sean Totsch and recent signing Jordan Scarlett looked solid throughout the night. Signed after three seasons with the rival Tampa Bay Rowdies in the offseason, Scarlett demonstrated acrobatic clearances and a confidence on the ball against Orange County. Totsch came up big on multiple occasions, including a 68th minute, last-ditch block on Brian Iloski, last year’s USL Championship Golden Boot winner who was in on City goalkeeper Kyle Morton.
Morton, who won the 2022 Golden Glove, was dominant throughout Saturday’s game on his return from a season-ending injury. The Pennsylvania native made three pivotal saves and showed no hesitation coming to claim crosses and corners on the night.
LouCity will remain in California this week to play Saturday at Monterey Bay FC before its March 25 home opener against El Paso Locomotive FC.