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USL Cup Final Preview: Swope Park Rangers v Louisville City FC

It all comes down to this.

Thad Bell

When: Monday, November 13th at 8:00 PM CT on ESPNU

Where: Louisville Slugger Field

Who: Swope Park Rangers (#4 West) vs. Louisville City FC (#1 East)

What: USL Cup Finals

The Swope Park Rangers have pulled off quite the feat. With their dramatic penalty kick shootout victory over the OKC Energy FC, the Rangers became the first team in USL history to go to back-to-back USL Championships. To make it even sweeter, they did it in their first two seasons of existence.

As a reward they will go on the road to face the best team in the Eastern Conference, Louisville City FC. The problem is, the Eastern Conference might as well be a different league. There is very limited inter league play. Because of that, we don’t know much about Louisville City. To help deal with that, our new friends at LouisvilleCoopers.com have asked us some questions and answered some questions for us. Enjoy!

We Ask Them

TBT: 1. Louisville City have only been a team for three years and yet they have made the Conference Finals every year and now they are in USL Cup. What is the secret to their sustained success, especially in a league like the USL with huge roster turnover?

LC: Some credit should go to ownership, front office, and fans for creating a great place for our players to play. The bulk of the praise belongs to our manager, James O'Connor, though, along with his fantastic staff, Daniel Byrd and Thabane Sutu. O'Connor is an amazing scout, having found starters from tryouts every season we've played, and picking up guys other teams left on the waste pile and turning them into stars. Case(s) in point: Kyle Smith, Oscar Jimenez, and Luke Spencer. There's no chance LouCity would be where they are now without O'Connor's eye for talent and ability to get the best from his players every week.

TBT: 2. Since Swope Park and Louisville don't meet during the regular season, it feels like they are in different leagues. What is LCFC's play style, formation, etc.?

LC: City has always liked to keep the ball, but this season they discovered a way to do that while being able to exploit vertical space. Traditionally, they played a 4-2-3-1 and very much played out of the back. Personnel changes eventually led us to a 3-4-3 this season, which lets the wingbacks exploit space in wide areas and while the midfield feeds the attack or wings, depending on where the space is. Louisville also has a really great centerback rotation that's excellent with the ball at their feet so they can quickly transition back to offense off of turnovers. Defensively, City like to press high. That occasionally leads to problems on the counter, but it hasn't bitten them very often.

TBT: 3. If you could only pick three players, who would you say are the key members of your team SPR fans should be looking out for? (Heck, Swope may want to sign some of these guys).

LC: It's hard to pick just three, but if I had to, I'd say watch for #80 Devon "Speedy" Williams, a ball-winning midfielder that frankly belongs in MLS; #12 Luke Spencer, our center forward and leading goalscorer who consistently puts in a great shift to lead the front line; and #10 Brian Ownby, another attacker that makes life for opposing fullbacks absolute hell.

TBT: 4. And I'll steal the last two questions from you. What are your concerns going into the final?

LC: There isn't much on our end that concerns me, to be honest. How our team handles a squad it's never faced before, with the talent Swope has at its disposal, will certainly be an interesting task. However, James O'Connor is very good about getting our players to focus on putting in the best performances they can and playing their game regardless of the opposition. Frankly, I'll be watching for whether there actually are any tactical tweaks from City in this game at all. That's not to be disrespectful to Swope Park, it's just the way O'Connor game plans.

TBT: 5. Make a prediction. Who wins the cup and by what score?

LC: Louisville City rarely loses at home. We've never lost a playoff match at Slugger Field. The crowd should be intense. I expect the guys will be well prepared. I think, based on what I know about Swope Park, that it'll be a fun game to watch.

I'm feeling pretty confident, to be honest. 2-1, City takes its first ever USL Cup and I absolutely lose my mind.

They Ask Us

LC: 1. How would you describe Swope Park's style of play under manager Nikola Popovic?

TBT: Despite playing a different formation than Louisville, it sounds like these teams play very similarly. SPR look to possess the ball and play out of the back as well. However they play out of a 4-3-3 formation but they also send their fullbacks forward into the attack. The holding midfielder, James Musa, can drop deep and act as a third centerback at times as well.

Overall the club looks to get forward and score lots of goals. One twist that SPR plays that Sporting Kansas City does not is that their center forward is more of a false nine. Lebo Moloto is a midfielder by trade and he can drop really deep for a #9. That opens up players from the wing to pinch in and get the goals, like leading scorer Kharlton Belmar.

LC: 2. Rangers are Sporting KC's development or reserve squad, which, for other teams, can mean up to 40 players seeing time in the USL over the course of a season. How would you grade Swope Park's roster in terms of consistency over the course of the playoffs? In other words, do you see many changes in the roster for the upcoming match, or is there a pretty good idea about the starting XI in your view?

TBT: Swope are very consistent. In the playoffs they’ve essentially played the same lineup from game to game with the exception of a few guys being with Sporting KC at the end of the season. Now that SKC are eliminated, anyone with five USL games is available to be loaned back to SPR. Don’t worry though, these aren’t MLS guys masquerading as USL players. They have mostly only played in USL this year with less than 200 MLS minutes among them. Expect to see the above mentioned Belmar, Kevin Oliveira, Adrian Zendejas, James Musa, Tyler Pasher, Amer Didic and Colton Storm. If I had to guess at a Starting XI, I’d say it’ll be pretty close to unchanged.

Zendejas

Storm – Didic – Barnathan – Maher

Duke – Musa – Oliveira

Pasher – Moloto - Belmar

LC: 3. We know that MLS clubs manage their USL reserve teams differently. FC Montreal and Toronto FC II are famous for just working on player development rather than results, while some other sides try to put more focus on winning performances in the league. How would you describe SKC's approach to SPR and the USL?

TBT: Sporting KC Manager and Technical Director Peter Vermes seems to have the perfect balance when it comes to Swope Park. In his season ending press availability he reiterated that the first priority is developing players for the first team and that winning is secondary. Despite that, SPR find themselves in their second USL Cup Final in just two seasons of existence. They have their share of teenagers getting significant minutes like Felipe Hernandez and Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal, but it seems to be guys in their low 20’s like Didic, Oliveira, Zendejas and Storm who are swallowing up most of the minutes.

I’d expect Wan Kamal and Hernandez on the bench along with Nansel Selbol but Hernandez and Selbol will almost certainly get in the game.

LC: 4. Give us some players to watch out for/ridicule. Anyone whose last name is Storm is ripe for some catcalls, yes?

TBT: The first person that jumps out is #90 Belmar. He is leading the team with 15 goals and he just has pace for days. He will hustle the whole game and he is so fast. A player who is out of form but capable of amazing things is #88 Oliveira. He’s an attacking midfielder who was #2 in the league’s 2016 20-under-20 list.

#55 Didic has been a complete stud at centerback for the season and a half he’s been a starter. He makes what could be considered risky tackles, but he always seems to get the timing right. He also kept SPR alive with a late goal in extra time against Phoenix Rising. The last guy to watch out for is #1 Zendejas. He’s been lights out between the posts and he even scored his 11th round penalty kick to send SPR to the USL Cup Final.

As for ridicule, Colton Storm is probably a good target. But I believe he prefers to go by “Mark from Cabo.”

LC: 5. What are you concerned about going into this Cup final?

TBT: Suddenly SPR have gone a bit cold in scoring goals. They have just two goals over three playoff games and have needed two shootouts to advance. One of those goals came really late in extra time too. They are really stout defensively but if they get behind will they find a way back? The good thing is they have only allowed a single goal in three playoff games. That goal was also allowed by the teams backup keeper to this guy Didier Drogba. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

LC: 6. What is your prediction for how the match plays out?

TBT: Let’s look at some stats. SPR have allowed 38 goals to Louisville’s 32. SPR have scored 57 goals to LCFC’s 64 goals. SPR are 6-6-4 on the road while LCFC are 11-2-3 at home, not to mention they added three more playoff wins. Swope have been to the finals before but they got blown out 5-1 by the Red Bulls last year. Also, many of the players from last year are gone due to the heavy USL roster turnover.

If the Rangers are to find a way to win, much like Sporting KC usually do, it’ll probably come down to penalty kicks. It really seems like everything is in Louisville’s favor but you just never know. In an effort not to jinx anything, I’ll say Louisville City wins 1-0.