There hasn’t been much to separate Nashville SC and Louisville City on the field. The two sides have played seven times since 2018, winning three each and sharing a draw.
“It’s always a challenge playing against this group,” said Nashville head coach Gary Smith after a 2-1 US Open Cup win on Wednesday night. “It was then, it is now. I’m sure that will continue.”
In a lot of ways, Louisville City have established themselves as the model for other USL clubs to follow. They’ve made the playoffs every year since their inception. They’ve won two USL Cups and made it to another final. They’ve opened a gorgeous 11,500 seat soccer-specific location and a state-of-the-art training facility, and they’ve created a pipeline of academy talent to supply their first team.
“They were the standard bearer for USL,” Smith said of the two seasons Nashville and Louisville shared in the USL Championship. ” I’ve seen a lot of their games. There’s a piece of me that still looks at the USL an awful lot. The fact that they’ve not only been able to develop as an organization, they’ve been able to build this fantastic stadium, they’re bringing young players through… There really is a good strength to the club and the community and the game in this region.”
Despite several changes in manager since Nashville’s time in USL, Louisville City have remained consistent under new manager Danny Cruz, who played against Smith’s Colorado Rapids side three times as a player.
“Danny was the biggest competitor in MLS when he was a player, and you can see some of those qualities in his players,” said Smith. “They have a manager in Danny Cruz who I think is coming on in leaps and bounds, and it’s very early in his managerial career. But if you look at what they’ve achieved in the league, and if you look at how they’re playing; they’ve got a very definitive style, they’re very much about the ball, they’re very confident, they’ve got great balance to the group. And if you look at some of the youngsters that they’re bringing through, this was always going to be a very tough encounter.”
In a lot of ways, Louisville has mirrored Nashville’s rapid embrace of soccer. Both are smaller, overlooked markets in the larger American sports landscapes, and both have rapidly gone from an idea to two of the most consistent teams in their respective leagues, with world class stadiums and training facilities in place.
In some regards, Louisville have established a model for Nashville to emulate, primarily with youth development. They signed Jonathan Gómez from the FC Dallas academy and gave him a platform to develop, before selling him in a rare USL-to-Europe transfer to Real Sociedad.
Louisville currently have five academy products signed to first-team contracts, including 17-year-old Joshua Wynder, who started the match against Nashville and is touted as a top prospect in US soccer. For Nashville, it’s an example to follow as they develop their own academy system.
The growth of soccer in Louisville is another remarkable look at how far soccer has come in the Southeastern United States, with cities like Nashville, Louisville, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Memphis, Atlanta, Charlotte and many others developing local support and infrastructure for their teams. It’s a marked change in how the sport is perceived here, even from just 15 years ago.
“The [Louisville] organization have taken advantage of the strength that they have in this community,” said Smith. “It’s absolutely fantastic.”