For the third straight year, the road to the USL title comes to an end in Louisville, Kentucky.
The USL Championship will crown its winner on Sunday night when Louisville City FC hosts Real Monarchs SLC at a sold out Lynn Stadium.
Neither of these sides were expected to be here. Louisville are the two-time defending champions, but they finished the regular season in fourth place and faced a pretty difficult road through the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Real Monarchs also finished fourth in their conference and had to go through some rough opposition on their way to the final. Most notably, they had to go on the road to face Phoenix Rising FC, who finished 18 points clear atop the West.
Louisville’s difficult postseason run has been highlighted by extra time wins against superior opposition, They opened the playoffs at home with a routine victory over the Tampa Bay Rowdies, but they’ve been through a couple of gruelling away matches since.
They conceded an early goal to the top-seeded Pittsburgh Riverhounds before finding a second half equalizer and an extra-time winner in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
In the East Final, they played a strong possession based game against Indy Eleven, but conceded early in the second half. and it took until the final minute of second half stoppage time for Antoine Hoppenot to equalize. They left nothing to doubt once bonus soccer began, though. Leading playoff goalscorers Luke Spencer and Magnus Rasmussen both found the back of the net to secure a 3-1 victory and a third straight run to the USL Final.
Rasmussen and Spencer have been the standout performers for Louisville City all season long. Rasmussen started all 34 regular season games this year and led the team with 16 goals. Spencer has been a fixture at the club for each of the last three seasons. He arrived in 2017 and has scored 28 goals. His ten finishes this year are good for second on the team behind his Danish teammate.
Louisville will go as far as these two take them up front. Nobody else on the team had more than five goals in the regular season and only two other players have scored in the playoffs. The aforementioned Hoppenot and Paolo DelPiccolo each have a goal in the postseason.
As for the Monarchs, Real Salt Lake’s USL affiliate started the playoffs with a bang. They demolished Orange County SC 6-2 in the Western Semis and followed that up with a 2-1 win over Phoenix Rising, who had won the USL regular season title with 78 points after setting an American soccer record with 20 consecutive wins.
Much like Louisville, their conference final matchup also required extra time. Erik Holt scored with a header in the 120th minute header to give them a 2-1 win over expansion El Paso Locomotive.
They have gotten this far thanks to more of a team effort when compared to their opponents. Three players, Douglas Martinez, Maikel Chang, and Jack Blake all racked up double-digit goal totals in the regular season. Those three have picked up plenty of help in the playoffs, mostly in the form of Holt, who has two goals, including the winner against El Paso.
They also have plenty of high-level professional experience earning solid minutes. Midfielder Luke Mulholland has 123 appearances with Real Salt Lake and has spent this season on loan with the USL side. The 31-year-old has started 11 games and helped spur attacks along with an impressive 83% pass completion rate.
These two sides each play different styles that should lead to an attractive matchup with a few goals to go around.
Louisville City is a team that likes to hang onto the ball and let their two playmakers do what they need to do.They are susceptible to counter-attacking teams, however, which plays right into the Monarchs’ hand.
SLC are a side that will allow their opponents to work with the ball while playing solid defense and hitting quickly the other way, and it works, They scored 71 goals in the regular season, behind only to Phoenix and Reno 1868 in the Western Conference. They will breakdown at the back, however, and expect that to happen as they go against a pair of talented attackers in Spencer and Rasmussen.
The USL Championship Final kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday night and you can watch it on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.