It’s hard to resist those Open Cup moments when little teams, with players working day-jobs, take a professional scalp. Considerably less romantic are those days when the little guy gets his head handed to him, like pub-club Tartan Devils Oak Avalon did in the Second Round. “They battled the whole way,” said James O’Connor, head coach of Louisville City FC, who didn’t take their foot off the gas until the score was 9-0 and the final whistle echoed into the Pittsburgh night. “We have nothing but respect for them.”
It might look a little like O’Connor and his Kentucky-based full pros of the United Soccer League (USL) are the heartless villains of the piece, but the respect he has for his opposition is real. Whether it’s Tartan Devils or FC Cincinnati, who they face in the Third Round on 31 May, or Columbus Crew, who awaits in the Fourth Round – that respect is clear as first light.
“It’s important to approach a game, any game no matter who or what level, the same way. That’s how you show a team and the Cup respect.” said the coach, who hails from Bray in Ireland’s County Wicklow. Still only 37, he had a long playing career just out of reach of the top tier in England. O’Connor knows something about being an underdog, of not quite getting to the top. “You play them the same way – pub team or MLS team,” he insisted. “That’s what it is to be a professional and that’s what we did.”
Burly midfielder Sean Totsch agrees with his boss, pausing before answering questions about the 9-0 scoreline, which some saw as unseemly, maybe overkill. “This is our job,” said the former Northern Illinois Huskie. “We have professional pride and are professional in the way we do things. Believe me, it looks a lot worse if you take your foot off the gas and stop scoring. That’s an insult.
“It’s nothing personal,” added the 25-year-old Totsch, 6-foot-2 and formerly of fellow USL side Rochester Rhinos. He scored the fifth in a game in which Louisville got their nine unanswered goals from eight different players. “We shook hands after the game and we have nothing but respect for the Tartan Devils and what they’re doing.”
FA Cup to Open Cup
Coach O’Connor came to the States from England in 2012 to play for fledgling Orlando City and help the Florida club in their rise to Major League Soccer. His frame of reference for the Open Cup is its forebearer from across the Atlantic. It was in the FA Cup – where he lined up 22 times for four different clubs – that O’Connor got a glimpse at the pinnacle of the game. He even had an unusual brush with a legend.
“I was just a young guy and suddenly I’m playing against Paul Gascoigne,” said O’Connor of the time when, with Stoke City in the Third Round of the 2001-2 FA Cup, he took the field with the unenviable task of keeping Gazza from the danger zones. “And you won’t believe it, here I am trying to do my job and up against one of the greats and he starts giving me advice on the field. He’s saying little things like follow your pass – don’t just watch it. It was good-natured and he was just trying to help a guy starting out. He took that moment to coach me and I never forgot it.”
O’Connor, in many ways, is the perfect coach for a side in the second tier of the American game. Having had stints with Stoke, Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday, he knows the challenges of being a pro without the spotlight or idolatry that goes with the likes of the Premier League. “I got promoted once to the Prem with West Brom,” he said, a wry edge to his voice. “I was on the bench for a few games, but it wasn’t long before I got sent back down on loan.”
He’s only a few years on from his playing days and was still putting his own name on the roster in his first year with Louisville in 2015. “It’s hard,” he admits, accent still thick with the eastern coast of Ireland. “My playing days are over, but there are moments, like when we were playing Tartan Devils, where I think: I can get a game here!”
O’Connor still gets a little too involved in play during training. He admits as much. Old habits die hard, as they say, and instincts never fade. “I always want to get on the ball,” he said. “I still want to play. It’s the natural impulse.”
Tables turn fast in Open Cup
Totsch, who plays the very holding midfield role O’Connor once did, responds to his coach’s passion for the game and the Open Cup. “He’s a really intense and passionate guy,” he said about his coach. “Nothing ever comes before the group. That’s the atmosphere he creates and it inspires you to work for your teammates and be unselfish.”
Circumstances will be dramatically different for Louisville in their next Open Cup outing. They’re up against FC Cincinnati, local rivals from their own league. They’ll be picking on someone their own size, so to speak, and you can bet it won’t be a nine-goal blowout. The match is likely to be testy considering the last time the two met a brawl was barely averted and Cincinnati’s Djiby Fall was suspended for five games after biting Lou City’s Niall McCabe. “Fiery,” is the word Totsch used to describe the likely atmosphere at Nippert Stadium in Ohio next week.
If Louisville can stand the heat and manage a win, the tables will turn in their Open Cup journey. They will become the underdog, up against 2002 champions Columbus Crew. “That’s the beauty of the Open Cup,” said O’Connor. “What the Tartan Devils did to get on the field with us was amazing and now we have the chance to go and put ourselves in the position they were in – we can try and show a bigger team what we’re about and do our damndest to get a result.”
They could also get hammered on the day. But if they’re true to their word, and prepare for every game the same way, there’s no reason Louisville City can’t go on a long run in this Open Cup. “It’s all a kind of circle,” said Totsch, as earnest off the pitch as he is imposing on it. “Playing against an MLS team is the kind of thing you dream about – that’s where we want to be – the games you live for.”