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It’s a rematch more than a year in the making.
Louisville City FC will visit the Tampa Bay Rowdies for Saturday’s USL Championship Eastern Conference Final with memories still fresh from the last time these clubs met in the 2020 national semifinal game, a 2-1 defeat for the boys in purple at Lynn Family Stadium.
This season, the game is shifting to Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and the winner will advance to host the Nov. 28 USL Championship Final.
Lynn Family Stadium has served as LouCity’s home fortress this season, but the club is looking to make the away environment as friendly as possible. More than 300 tickets were purchased for season ticket members, with many of those taking LouCity up on a free flight or bus travel option to the game.
Those making the trip will see a pair of sides in peak forms. City boasts a four-game winning streak, out-scoring opponents 6-1 over that span. The boys in purple have registered three straight 1-0 score lines — their longest run of clean sheets this season — and are now seeking the club’s fourth Eastern Conference crown after raising that trophy each season from 2017-2019.
The Rowdies, meanwhile, are looking for their second straight Eastern Conference title and the opportunity to take things a bit further after the 2020 final was canceled due to COVID-19 cases at Tampa Bay. Coach Neill Collins’ squad went 23-7-2 in the regular season, including 14-2-1 at Al Lang Stadium.
Here's more of what to watch for in Saturday's Eastern Conference Final showdown...
Head coach Danny Cruz says...
“Ultimately, it will give our player a boost to hear them," he said of the traveling support. "It’ll give our players a boost as legs start to tire, having that extra jolt of energy. Obviously, it’s going be amazing for our fans to experience that as well. We’re excited that they’re going to be able to be there and hopefully share a special moment with the players.”
• For Starting XI and in-game updates, follow @loucityfc on Twitter and Louisville City FC on Facebook. Also find us at louisvillecityfc on Instagram. Live stats can be found at LouCity.com/match-center.
• On the WBKI/TheCW and ESPN+ call: Joe Malfa (play-by-play) and Ricky Lopez-Espin (color).
• And for ESPN 680/105.7 on the radio: Jeff Greer and Casey Whitfield.
Notes to know
Playoff scenarios: Two down, two to go. With a win Saturday over Tampa Bay, the boys in purple would make a run at their third straight USL Championship Final. LouCity remains the only club to win it back to back, doing so in 2017 and 2018, and also appeared in the game in 2019. The Eastern Conference Final winner will host the advancing Western Conference Final team, either Orange County SC of San Antonio FC, with that game kicking off at 10 p.m. Saturday.
Bigger picture: According to the numbers at FiveThirtyEight.com, the two remaining playoff teams with the best chance of winning the title meet Saturday. The Rowdies are given a 44% chance of taking the USL Championship Final, while LouCity is given a 25% chance of putting a third star above its crest.
The streak lives: For seven straight seasons — every year LouCity has played — the club has advanced to the Eastern Conference Final even as the USL Championship has grown from 24 teams in 2015 to 30-plus now. The last time City went on the road for a conference final, it defeated rival Indy Eleven in dramatic fashion, equalizing in injury time before scoring twice in extra time with similarly strong away support.
Happy at home: Last weekend, LouCity welcomed 9,155 to Lynn Family Stadium, a club-record crowd for a home conference final. Accordingly, the boys in purple kept winning on their home turf. City has suffered just one defeat at home since capacity restrictions lifted in June and sport a +20 goal differential over that span.
On the touchline: Saturday's match will feature two head coaches not far removed from their playing careers. Neill Collins leads the home side after 17 years as a pro, featuring for well-known English sides such as Sunderland, Sheffield United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leeds Unity before playing his final seasons in Tampa Bay. LouCity coach Danny Cruz played for a decade, including stints in Major League Soccer, before transitioning to coaching in 2018.
Consistent 11: Playing a condensed schedule and limited by a number of injuries this season, Cruz made changes to his lineups more often than not, with 23 of 24 rostered players making at least one start. However, for four straight games now Cruz has narrowed in on the same starters. Showing the clubs staying power, six of them were in the 2017 and 2018 title teams. Ten of 11 were part of last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
Scoring kings: The top two remaining goal scorers the USL Championship Playoffs will go head to head Saturday night. Tampa Bay’s Sebastián Guenzatti bagged 21 regular season goals to rank second in the league, and Cameron Lancaster had 20 of his own. They trailed only Golden Boot winner Hadji Barry, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks SC star whose 25 regular season goals tied Lancaster's 2018 single-season league scoring record.
Bagels again: A third consecutive clean sheet for goalkeeper Chris Hubbard on Saturday night marked LouCity's longest shutout streak since a run of games between Aug. 18-25 that preceded the 2018 title. City has won its last three games by a margin of 1-0 and has only allowed five shots on target. Should Hubbard and the back line produce two more shutouts in their final two games, they would tie a team record for five straight clean sheets set in 2016.
Man of the Match: When discussing LouCity’s success in 2021, you’d be remiss not to mention winger Brian Ownby. He tallied a career-high 11 assists in his fifth season in purple — one off the USL Championship lead — and last Saturday earned Man of the Match honors in the conference semifinal win over Charlotte Independence. Ownby registered four key passes, four chances created and won three fouls on the night.
To the spot: If earning penalties counted as assists, defender Jonathan Gomez could add three more to his eight on the year. The left back has consistently pushed up in the attack, making life difficult for opposing defender. That included the Charlotte game, when his shifty footwork sent a player to the ground and led to an 87th-minute hand ball. Before Saturday, Gomez also earned penalties July 31 versus OKC Energy FC and Oct. 23 versus Memphis 901 FC.
From the spot: Lancaster has been the beneficiary of those whistles, plus earned a few penalties himself. And he’s made the most of opportunities, sinking seven of eight PK tries directly from the spot. The eighth was blocked, rebounded to Lancaster, and he scored that one too. The Englishman upped his career total this season to 71 goals, good for fourth on the USL Championship’s all-time list.