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'When you're desperate you'll do anything' - the Irishman on the cusp of history in the US

Niall McCabe could win a third straight USL championship with Louisville City FC later today.

THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT a dynasty in Louisville.

And there’s a Dubliner at the heart of the story.

The city’s United Soccer League (USL) side face Utah’s Real Monarchs later tonight, chasing a third straight championship. But the Kentucky club’s dominance of the North American second tier (though there is no promotion/relegation system) extends further.   

“We’ve only been around for five years”, says Niall McCabe. 

“And in those five years, we’ve made it to the Eastern Conference final each time. We lost the first two – to Rochester and then to New York Red Bulls II – but managed to win the last three, as well as going on to win the last two championships. But to make it to the conference decider every single year is unreal in itself. It’s a great testament to the players. What we’re doing is crazy. Nobody has ever won three-in-a-row over here, not in MLS or in the old NASL or in the USL. Never. So to have that kind of carrot dangling in front of you to become the first ever…that’s a big motivator.” 

Certain teams have gone close. In the NASL, the fabled New York Cosmos side tasted back-to-back successes in the late-1970s. In MLS, Bruce Arena’s DC United won the first two titles in 1996 and 1997 but lost in the final the following year. Houston Dynamo later won two-in-a-row while the LA Galaxy, during Robbie Keane’s stint with the franchise, claimed three in four years.

So, McCabe and his team-mates are in good company.

The midfielder has been at Louisville from the start and is approaching ten years in the United States in total, having landed at Young Harris College in 2010 – deep in the Georgian mountains – where he studied for four years while playing in Division II of the NCAA. He’s still just 29 but, in a league where there’s a high turnover of players every season, a Louisville FC veteran at this stage. In October of last year, he celebrated a century of USL appearances for the team and has added another 32 to that haul this term. It’s been a superb run but he’s keen to point out that this is the title Louisville are longing for.

McCabe2

“Last year we lost our two main goal threats and people were writing us off before we even kicked a ball”, he says. 

“Looking back on 2017 and 2018, I was really hungry to just win something, especially after losing the previous two conference finals. Even growing up, I’ve always been a nearly man – always made it to finals and got beaten. But immediately after winning the first one, attention turned to defending it. And the hunger was there.”

But this year has been different. We’ve kept our heads down, pushed on and drove each other forward. And it wasn’t hunger this season. The guys were desperate. And when you’re desperate you’ll do anything. You’ll bite someone’s nose off to win. You’ll roll over whoever is in your way. I think there’s a real desperation to do it three times. It’s something special. We don’t really have superstars but we have an unreal team and play fantastic football. We play the right way and it’s good on the eye. People don’t usually like winners but if you do it in the right way, it’s hard not to be liked.”

The regular season was different too. Louisville had to make do with a fourth-place finish, ensuring their play-off run was tough. An Eastern Conference semi-final against Pittsburgh – who’d finished top of the league – went to extra-time, where Louisville grabbed a winner two minutes from the end. In the conference final against Paddy Barrett’s Indy Eleven, they were even closer to elimination. A 94th-minute equaliser forced extra-time, where they added two more goals to win.    

“They were probably the two toughest games you could face into”, McCabe says. 

“Pittsburgh hadn’t lost a home game in a year and a half. And Indy hadn’t lost at home all season. They are class, Martin Rennie has them well-coached and Paddy is a bleedin’ man mountain. It was a serious, physical battle. One of the hardest. There was no hiding. But the way we got back in those games and win the way we did, it shows the spirit and resolve. We’re never out until we’re out and I think it really galvanised the team. I think we’ve gone 1-0 down about fifteen times this season and still came back to win. I’d rather it not be like that but it’s a great show of mentality and character to take that bit of adversity, the knock on the chin and keep going, confident that how we play will eventually get us the right result. We feel that more often than not that the result will come, even if we concede.”

McCabe3 Niall McCabe pictured with the USL Eastern Conference trophy.

“Injuries to key players derailed us at the beginning of the season a bit but then we kicked on. And if we manage to come out on top this time, I think it’ll mean the most to me. People writing us off, us coming back, playing the way we have done, proving people wrong…But if we lose, it will hurt the most as well.”

McCabe points to the club’s first coach, another Dubliner in James O’Connor, as having instilled a solid blueprint that provided a foundation for success. John Hackworth, who’s in his first full season in charge, has continued the good work and maintained and developed an intense environment.  

“James did a great job initially of establishing what it was like to be a team and the culture you need to succeed”, says McCabe. 

That’s really stuck with us. When players keep coming back, it rolls over and the new lads learn pretty quickly that this dressing room is a little bit different. And credit to John (Hackworth), he recognised that too and that he didn’t need to change much. So the culture has stayed the same. I don’t think we get enough credit for what we do. I’m not saying we need more but I think the players deserve it. I can’t speak highly enough of them. Every day they challenge each other. There’s bickering, it gets testy sometimes and there are people holding others to account. Training is mental, the intensity is crazy. But it’s just football. Whenever stuff isn’t going your way, you push on. You take it on the chin.” 

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There were 36 teams across two USL conferences this season and earlier this week, David Villa announced he was part investor in a new franchise based in Queens, New York that will start in the league in 2021. With Didier Drogba still involved with Phoenix Rising and the likes of Sacramento and Nashville heading for MLS in the coming years, it seems the USL is in a very healthy place. 

Tickets for tonight’s decider sold out in just 96 minutes and Louisville themselves will start next season in a brand-new stadium.  

“I can’t wait”, McCabe says. 

“The fans will pack it out every week and it’s tremendous growth for the league. Hopefully it will keep growing and the spotlight will get bigger. It can only help that teams are investing in sides and building soccer-specific stadiums.”

McCabe is settled in Louisville with a partner and young son. He loves it there, even with his veteran tag. 

“We were looking at the GPS stats and I’m still doing okay. I covered 16.7km last weekend which ins’t bad for an aul’ lad”, he says. 

“I’m still getting around the pitch so I’ll take any tag or title just so long as we keep winning. I’ve been in the US almost ten years now and in football you never know. An opportunity could come along next week and it might be too good to pass up. But at Louisville, we have a winning team. And why would you leave when you’re winning?” 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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