Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Jan. 15 and has been updated with new information from the preseason.
Nashville SC’s initiation in to the USL will start with a trial by fire when the team kicks off the 2018 regular season on the road against defending USL Cup champions Louisville City FC.
One game – especially a season-opener – does not make a season, but this tough test will tell us a lot about what is to come for Nashville in 2018. The Boys in Gold had a solid preseason finishing with 3-1-3 record against MLS, USL and college teams.
“If we are going to have a test, a bit of a benchmark, then there is none better than Louisville,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith on the team’s website after the final preseason match against Chattanooga FC. “The season can’t be won or lost next weekend.”
The game starts at 2 p.m. CT on Saturday at Louisville Slugger Field.
Louisville City FC’s championship season
Louisville City FC scored the second-most goals (65), took the most shots (558) and delivered the most clean sheets (15) in the league. All adding up to an impressive 18-8-6 record and a 2017 USL Cup victory over the Swope Park Rangers.
But that was last season, right?
Unfortunately for Nashville, Louisville has resigned 15 players from last year’s squad, including 9 of the 11 starters from their 2017 USL Cup victory. This includes their leading scorer, best midfielder, team captain, goal keepers and starting center backs.
Louisville City’s lineup doesn’t have many weakness making them a favorite to repeat as champions.
O’Connor’s winning ways
James O’Connor has been Louisville City FC’s head coach since the team’s inception in 2014. Under O’Connor’s leadership, Louisville City has scored the most goals, made the most assists and gained the most points in the USL.
The Irishman has developed a highly successful blueprint leading to the USL Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, 2016 and Cup Championship last season.
O’Connor favored a 3-4-3 setup last season utilizing his squad’s flexibility to create matchup problems for opposing teams.
Louisville City FC’s well-balanced offense
Luke Spencer looks to build off of last season where he led the team in goals (11) and shots on target (35). The 27-year-old striker tortured his former club last season when he scored a goal and had two assists in a 5-0 rout of FC Cincinnati.
Spencer is not Louisville City’s only offensive option. Cameron Lancaster, Brian Ownby and George Davis IV scored 22 goals last season as a group. Ownby scored three goals in the playoffs and Lancaster put away the USL Cup game winner. This group can score on set pieces, with possession and on the counter attack.
Pulling the strings for Louisville City’s offense is Oscar Jimenez. The 28-year-old midfielder led the USL with 76 scoring chances created and finished second with 263 crosses. He is also extremely durable leading the team with 2,978 minutes played – the sixth most in the USL last season.
Nashville SC’s defense will have their work cut out from them as Louisville City’s goals came from multiple positions on the pitch. Defender Kyle Smith put 14 shots on target and found the back of the net four times. In total, Louisville City had 17 different players score at least one goal last season.
Louisville City FC’s captain returns
Paolo DelPiccolo donned the captain’s armband at the beginning of the 2017 season and never looked back. If Jimenez is the offensive catalyst for Louisville City, DelPiccolo is the glue controlling the middle of the pitch.
The box-to-box midfielder logged the fourth most minutes on the team (2,658) and took the 13th most passes (1,584) in the USL last season. He capped off the 2017 season being named the USL Championship MVP.
DelPiccolo can easily go overlooked on Louisville City’s roster, but his leadership, offensive creativity and defensive tenacity make him their most important player.
Louisville City FC’s lock down defense
Louisville City’s defense, which allowed the third fewest goals last season, returns most of its key members for the 2018 season.
The centerpiece of their backline is 2017 USL Defender of the Year finalist Paco Craig. The 25-year-old center back led the team in almost every defensive category, including clearances (116), blocks (14), interceptions (71) and aerial duals won (70).
Craig is not afraid to mix it up and get physical against opposing players. He finished 2017 with 42 fouls, seven yellow cards and 1 red card.
Craig’s defensive partner Sean Totsch is no slouch. The 6-foot-2-inch center back used his size, strength and speed to lead the team in tackles and duels won. Totsch’s 64 tackles won put him in seventh place out of all USL defenders last season.
Louisville City signed Shaun Francis to replace Tarek Morad at left back after Morad’s contract expired. Francis has spent the last four years at the MLS level. The 31-year-old Jamaican international made 69 appearances for the San Jose Earthquakes from 2014-2017 before being traded to the Montreal Impact.
Francis has also been a top player at the international level scoring three goals in 11 appearances for the “Reggae Boyz.” He made his first start for Louisville last Saturday playing a full 90 minutes in a 1-1 draw against Saint Louis FC.
Louisville City FC has two solid options in goal
Ranjitsingh’s 2017 season did not get off to a great start after the 24-year-old keeper suffered an injury halfway through the first game of the season. Dobrowolski did a fine job filling in while Ranjitsingh recovered from a strained hip flexor. The 6-foot-2-inch keeper recorded 22 saves, three clean sheet and a 0.91 goals against average.
Ranjitsingh regained the starting role in May and never looked back making 25 total appearances. He recorded 11 clean sheets, blocked 48 shots and only allowed 0.85 goals per game, the sixth best goals against average in the USL.
Ranjitsingh shined in the playoffs making a spectacular extra-time save against the Red Bulls II’s Ethan Kutler’s free kick in the Easter Conference Finals. The Trinidad & Tobago international then shut out Swope Park Rangers in the USL Cup Championship game.
Mark Anthony-Kaye to LAFC
One of the big losses for Louisville is Mark Anthony-Kaye, who was transferred to LAFC in February. The 23-year-old midfielder was a key member of last season’s team scoring four goals and one assist. Anthony-Kaye started in all four playoff matches and played 1,191 minutes in 2017.
The Canadian-international made his MLS debut for LAFC starting against the Seattle Sounders on March 4. Anthony-Kaye held his own at the top domestic level for the MLS expansion squad.
A potential replacement for Anthony-Kaye is the return of Magnus Rasmussen. The Danish midfielder made 40 appearances for Louisville City from 2015-2016, but played for Danish team BK Frem last year.
61 days to prepare
It will have been 61 days for Smith to create a game plan and prepare his players to upset the defending champs from the first official practice to this Saturday’s match.
“We have fared well in the games leading up to next weekend,” Smith said. “I see no reason why the group I have in that locker room will not turn up and perform. Everybody will be frothing at the mouth waiting for it, and it’s been a long time coming.”