Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
With almost half of the games settled after 90 minutes, and one-third going to a penalty shootout, there was no lack of drama in the 2017 USL Cup Playoffs.
In the end, though, Louisville City FC’s run to its first championship provided the culmination of a remarkable year in the Derby City that saw different heroes rise throughout the year for the side that finished top of the Eastern Conference.
Louisville had little drama in its opening game of the postseason, though, as an emphatic victory against playoff newcomer Bethlehem Steel FC sent the side through. For the Western Conference’s No. 1-seed, though, the first of five penalty shootouts in the postseason saw Real Monarchs SLC’s hopes of becoming the fourth teams to win both the USL Regular Season Championship and USL Cup come to an end as No. 8-seed Sacramento Republic FC scored the upset a year after befalling the same fate in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Sacramento wasn’t the only side to need a shootout to advance on the postseason’s opening weekend, either. The Swope Park Rangers needed to first rally in extra time after Didier Drogba had put Phoenix Rising FC ahead after the teams had finished deadlocked after 90 minutes, but Amer Didic’s first playoff goal and a stellar shootout display by goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod sent the defending Western Conference champion through.
The side the Rangers had fallen to at the 2016 USL Cup entered its championship defense as an underdog, but the New York Red Bulls II also showed their mettle as the No. 7-seed in the Eastern Conference. After handing the Charleston Battery their first home playoff defeat in the USL’s modern era to open the playoffs, New York rallied in one of the epic contests in USL Cup Playoffs history. Two goals by Stefano Bonomo and a six-save display by goalkeeper Evan Louro sent New York through after extra time at Al Lang Stadium to end the Rowdies’ run.
Another clash that had fans on the edge of their seats came the same night in the Western Conference, and produced another memorable upset as No. 6-seed OKC Energy FC downed No. 2-seed San Antonio FC in a penalty shootout. First-time playoff participants SAFC had held the lead for much of the game after an early goal by Cesar Elizondo, but after Wojciech Wojcik’s late equalizer sent the game to extra time, Energy FC goalkeeper C.J. Cochran played the hero in the penalty shootout to send the visitors through.
The underdog runs came to an end in the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, however. In a rematch of 2016’s clash in the East, Louisville and New York once again went to a penalty shootout after a pulsating clash at Slugger Field, only for this time Greg Ranjitsingh to allow the hosts to emerge victorious. After watching from the sidelines after an injury a year prior, Ranjitsingh’s saves in the fourth and fifth round allowed local standout Richie Ballard to send Louisville into its first USL Cup.
As dramatic as Louisville’s victory proved, Swope Park and OKC endured the longest penalty shootout in USL Cup Playoffs history before determining a winner at Children’s Mercy Sporting Park. Unable to capitalize on an early advantage from the spot, the Rangers went blow for blow with Energy FC in sudden death until the 11th round, when goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas first saved from his counterpart Cochran, and then converted to make Swope Park the first team to advance to USL Cup in back-to-back years.
The Rangers hopes of breaking the six-year run of hosts lifting the USL Cup came to an end in similarly dramatic fashion. With a venue-record crowd of 14,456 fans packed into Slugger Field, and a national audience tuned in on ESPNU, Louisville and Swope Park went toe-to-toe but remained scoreless deep into the second half. With the game seemingly headed to extra time, however, a pinpoint cross by Jamaican international Speedy Williams saw Cameron Lancaster become a hero. The scorer of Louisville’s first goal of the 2017 regular season also scored the USL’s final goal of the year as his perfect cushioned header picked out the right corner of the net in the 89th minute, and sent the stadium into bedlam.
After the drama that had preceded it, Lancaster’s goal provided the exclamation point on a month that provided a postseason to remember for those that were part of it. As the league’s calendar turns to 2018, we’re hoping for an encore next November.