Third time was the charm as No. 1 seed. Louisville City FC defeated defending USL Champions New York Red Bulls II 4-3 in penalty kicks in an Eastern Conference rematch at Slugger Field Saturday night.
Brian Ownby gave the hosts the lead in the 12th minute with a curling effort, but Junior Flemmings equalized in the 57th minute to force overtime. Louisville goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh made two critical saves in the penalty shootout to allow Richard Ballard, with the final kick of the game, to punch the No. 1 seed’s ticket to the USL Championship.
The two sides met in last year’s Eastern Conference finals with the Red Bulls advancing on penalties 4-3 after neither team could find a winner in 120 minutes.
After having to play through a slow start last week against Rochester, Louisville coach James O’Connor didn’t risk the same fate against the defending champions. Ownby, who was instrumental in the second half against Rochester, was given the nod to start and set the tone set the tone. He rewarded the manager’s decision with the opener in the 12th minute. City sent the ball forward around the edge of the box that New York was unable to clear. The Virginia native gathered in the ball and turned to curl his effort past New York goalkeeper Evan Louro.
Taking the lead had New York reeling. The Red Bulls was giving up tons of green on the flanks, particularly on the right side that Kyle Smith and Ownby exploited.
Paolo DelPiccolo almost doubled the purple advantage in the 22nd minute. After gathering New York’s clearance, the captain played a 1-2 with Luke Spencer. DelPiccolo’s touch on the return pass gave him space in the box to fire, but went just wide of the right post.
New York settled into the hostile venue and started to look like the team that defeated Charleston and Tampa. They enjoyed a significant 60-40% possession advantage, but City was compact and held firm to fend off the Red Bull pressure.
City wrote the script the same way as they did last year. City took the lead in the 11th minute last year, and this year in the 12th. But the difference was the defending. New York was unable to keep City’s danger men in check in the first half as Smith and Oscar Jimenez consistently created chances and Ownby finding space in behind to keep New York on their heels. At the back, City was able to keep Stefano Bonomo, who powered New York to this stage, relatively quiet.
The Red Bulls had to make something out of the possession they enjoyed, but with Bonomo closely marked, they needed another outlet to get the New York offense back on track. Junior Flemmings stepped up and delivered the equalizer in the in the 57th minute. After gathering the ball at midfield, Flemmings ran at the City defense, getting by two defenders to fire past Ranjitsingh to silence Slugger Field.
City almost answered five minutes later with Ownby going just wide. Jimenez launched the purple attack, laying off for Smith and Ownby racing the box. Smith found Ownby in stride, who fired, but Louro made a huge leg save to keep the score level. Despite the save, the referee strangely gave a goal kick to New York.
Ownby should have been awarded a penalty in the 72nd. Ballard backheeled to Ownby, who had space to run into the box, before being shoved in the back by a Red Bull defender. What looked to be a stonewall penalty was waved off by the referee to keep the game at 1-1.
Louisville was the aggressor searching for the late winner, with New York bending, but not breaking to force overtime.
Ballard had the first chance in extra time at the top of the box in the 93rd minute. He created space and fired to the left post, but Louro was quick to get down and make the save.
New York had a chance of their own five minutes later at the edge of the box with Evan Kutler stepping up to take the free kick. City set up a big wall to close the angle for the Red Bulls to take. Kutler fired a rocket to the left post, but Ranjitsingh picked it out perfectly to make the save full extension. The second period of extra time was relatively quiet as tired legs made a significant impact to force a penalty shootout.
Bonomo started the shootout and despite being shut down, gave the Red Bulls a 1-0 lead, sending Ranjitsingh the other way. Smith stepped up for Louisville to level the shootout 1-1, going to the bottom right corner. Extra time substitute Douglas Martinez was second for New York and placed his shot just under Ranjitsingh. DelPiccolo was next for the boys in purple and went left, but Louro telegraphed the shot and made a huge save. Florian Valot was third and went straight away to give New York a commanding 3-1 lead. Sean Totsch had big pressure on City to keep them alive. He calmly placed his shot to the right post making it 3-2. 17-Year-Old Ben Mines stepped up fourth and went right, but Ranjitsingh picked it out to get City back in it. Jimenez stuttered and went right to level the score at 3-3. Kutler was fifth for the Red Bulls and fired left, but Ranjitsingh tipped the ball, to ricochet off the top of the bar to give City a chance to win with the last kick. With the entire city on the back of the hometown kid, Ballard stepped up and sent Louro the other way to book City into the USL Championship.
In the Western Conference Championship, Swope Park goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas saved a penalty, then scored to send the Rangers to their second consecutive USL Championship.
Louisville City will host the Swope Park Rangers in the USL Championship on Monday, Nov. 13 at Slugger Field. Kickoff is slated for 9 p.m.