Experience isn’t everything. But it counts for much – especially in the rough and tumble of the Open Cup.
“It’s the key for me,” said Danny Cruz, head coach of Louisville City, who knows the pain of losing an Open Cup Final and the unpredictable nature of the competition. His on-the-field field lieutenant, Brian Ownby, who scored one of the best goals of the tournament in 2018, and helped lead the Kentucky club to a Quarterfinal berth that year, agrees: “The emotions of these games can overwhelm a young player.”
Every veteran player was once one of those easily overwhelmed youngsters, looking up at a future where nothing is guaranteed and all is possible. In 2009, Cruz (now 32 and in his second year as a head coach) and Ownby (31 and still owning the right flank) were fresh-faced kids from Virginia – teammates representing the U.S. at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt. “He was on one wing and I was on the other,” Ownby remembered of those early days 13 years ago.
Spinning Wisdom from Experience
Experience isn’t wisdom. You have to be paying attention for it to count for something. And luckily for Louisville City fans, these two have been taking notes for the last decade and change.
“Soccer’s a game of mistakes as well as taking your chances,” said Ownby, one of seven Lou City players over the age of 30, who his coach describes as “still explosive and crucial” to the way the team plays. “That’s something you have to make sure young players know – if things go wrong early, or if you make a mistake, don’t let your head drop. It’s a long game.”
Mistakes can swing the balance in any Cup contest. But the fear to make one can paralyze a player. It’s all about the balance, according to the coach. Cruz’s sharpest Open Cup memory is from 2014. Playing at home in that year’s decider for Philadelphia Union, he subbed on for Andrew Wenger in the 81st minute against the four-time Open Cup champion Seattle Sounders. His entry came just in time for Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins to take over the game and score twice in the final 20 minutes of extra-time to doom the Union to the first of what would go on to be three lost Open Cup finals.
What Cruz remembers most is a missed opportunity. “To be that close and have it slip away is something, you don’t forget,” he said remembering Vincent Nogueira’s shot that splattered off the post in second-half injury time and would have been the game-winner. “That’s why I remember that chance we didn’t take. I remember thinking to myself that we were one chance away from lifting something – and for me the whole thing is about lifting a trophy with the people you’ve been in the trenches with all season.”
That 2014 Open Cup remains, for Cruz, the trophy that got away. But his Lou City of today, who arrive at the 2022 Open Cup Round of 32 after a 1-0 win over third-division side Chattanooga Red Wolves and a penalty shootout (after 120 scoreless minutes) against MLS Next’s St Louis City SC, have made a habit of lifting trophies. They were crowned back-to-back USL Championship champions in 2017 and 2018, runners-up in 2019 and they reached the semis in both of the last two years.
The Open Cup represents the only opportunity for Louisville City, who’ve yet to lose a game this season, to show what they can do against the top teams in the land. A win in the next round – on the road against high-flying USL Championship league mates Detroit City FC – could open that door.
Hopes for an MLS Showdown
“We believe that we have players who are good enough to be in that league [MLS],” said Ownby, who began his post-college career at Houston Dynamo. His subsequent years as a top performer in the second division make him the perfect mentor for Lou City’s quartet of wide-eyed teenagers, like center-back Josh Wynder, just 17, who scored the winning penalty in the Third Round against St Louis City and who Coach Cruz describes as “playing above his years.”
Detroit City have already beaten an MLS team (Columbus Crew) in this 2022 Open Cup. They’ve taken on the mantle of tournament darlings and just happen to have one of the most ferocious home-field advantages in the country. It will take all the experience Louisville City can muster to get out of Hamtramck with a win and a potential date with an MLS opponent in the Round of 16.
“It’s an amazing atmosphere. I was proud watching what they [Detroit City] did [beating Columbus Crew] from the outside,” said Cruz of the Keyworth Stadium experience that awaits him and his team. “I’d much rather be at home because Detroit is a hell of a place to go, but the guys who’ve been here a long time know that if they want to play an MLS team, they have to go there and do the job.”
It will be the first meeting this year between Louisville and their league mates from the Motor City – as DCFC only arrived in the second-division USL Championship after winning the third-division NISA two years running in 2020 and 2021. “I watched some of the game [against the Crew] and they really had that place rocking.” Ownby admitted. “You could really feel the emotion from the fans.”
Cruz, Onwby – and the entirety of the Louisville City squad – will feel that emotion up close on gameday. But it’s not something a grizzled vet like Ownby is sweating too much. “I enjoy the banter from the fans from time to time,” he added. “Sometimes it can give you a little more grit out there on the field.”
Experience Breeds Optimism
You’d think all the experience at hand in the Lou City locker room might bring with it a kind of pessimism. That it could breed a fatalism about the Open Cup, a tournament which has been won by an MLS team for 23 of the last 24 years. But when experience cooks down to wisdom it allows for hope – and the possibility of Cup magic.
“I absolutely love this competition,” said Cruz, a man who saw his flirtation with the trophy turn to ash in 2014 and who knows, better than most, how momentum and confidence, and the willingness to battle, can make all the difference. “I know that every year an MLS team has won it, but I also believe I have a group that’s good enough on any given day to compete with the highest level. I believe that.”
Ownby’s on the same page: “It’s do or die. There’s no reason to lay off. I truly think we can match up. [Coach] Danny has instilled it in us – he has full confidence in us and full belief.”
And with players like Ownby out on the field, still charging hard up the flank at 31, it’s no wonder Cruz is filled with the optimism usually reserved for the young and naive. “You love to have someone like him out there – someone who lives up to the moment,” Cruz said about his former teammate ahead of another test of nerve. “With all the experience he brings.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.