It was a stalemate for 60 minutes. Louisville City FC controlled the tempo and possession, but Birmingham Legion was content to sit back and try to steal a goal in transition.
Then, Brian Ownby entered the field.
The veteran attacker, playing as a central striker instead of his usual winger role, helped spark Louisville City’s offense and eventually earned his side a penalty kick in the 90th minute. Centerback Sean Totsch stepped up and calmly scored to give Louisville City a 1-0 win over Birmingham in the Third Round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup on Wednesday at Lynn Stadium on the campus of the University of Louisville.
“We didn’t’ play the way we wanted to in the first half, but I loved the response coming out of halftime,” Louisville City head coach John Hackworth said following the match. “It was a tough halftime talk, a lot of honest, direct conversation in there. The guys accepted it and went out and played a much better second half.
“You saw when Paolo (DelPiccolo) and Ownby came in, first of all, just fantastic to have those guys back. It was always an objective to get them 30 minutes tonight, but to do it when it’s 0-0 and they come on and be really impactful and allow us to play so much better, that was really nice to see.”
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) May 30, 2019
The appearance for Ownby was his first in nearly two months, after he suffered a knee injury following Birmingham’s 3-2 USL Championship league win on March 30 over Louisville City at Louisville Slugger Field. The match also marked a return for captain and central midfielder DelPiccolo for the first time since suffering an injury in mid-March.
In the first half, both team’s game plans seemed to be playing out, with Louisville City stringing passes through midfield and around the backline, probing for a weak spot in the Birmingham defense, while Birmingham looked to find forward Chandler Hoffman in space on the break. Hoffman spent a memorable season in Louisville in 2016, scoring 14 league goals on the way to making the Eastern Conference finals.
With a league game coming on Saturday, both teams made a handful of lineup changes, including having Louisville City midfielder Niall McCabe tested out at the head of the forward three, a decision that ultimately didn’t pay dividends.
However, despite Louisville City’s possession, it was unable to do much with it. Left back Shaun Francis may have had the home side’s best chance of the half when he jumped for a header in the box as he strayed way up the field, but it was re-directed out for a corner by his defender.
Birmingham meanwhile nearly scored a brilliant goal just seconds before halftime. Gael Mabiala, a former UAB Blazer who stayed in Birmingham after college, found himself wide open on the left side of the box. Mabiala took a touch to set himself and then curled an effort past the diving arms of Louisville City goalkeeper Chris Hubbard. Unfortunately for Mabiala, it dinked off the far post and dribbled across the face of goal before being cleared to safety. Six inches inside and it likely would have been a goal.
The game turned on its head with the introductions of DelPiccolo and Ownby.
Suddenly, Louisville City had a holding midfielder with a better range of passing, as he picked out George Davis IV and McCabe down the wings on multiple occasions. But it was Ownby who made life a mess for the Birmingham backline, always playing on the back shoulder of his defender and breaking the offside trap nearly a half-dozen times.
Finally, in the 90th minute, after goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel had made a couple of nice point-blank saves on Ownby, the Louisville City man found his opening. A beautifully chipped ball over the top led to a clear breakaway for Ownby. Ownby attempted to round Van Oekel but the goalkeeper tripped up Ownby, leading to a penalty kick and a yellow card for Van Oekel.
Totsch immediately grabbed the ball and after a couple of hesitation steps, calmly sent Van Oekel the wrong way.
“I knew it was going in,” Totsch said. “We talked before the game and they said that I was going to have it if there was going to be a pen (sic). We had some chances before, George (Davis IV) had one and Ownby had one leading up to it. It was the 89th minute there, and I said, ‘all right, this is my chance here.’ I had a goal last year, same round of the Open Cup to score and win, so I figured, why not do it again.”
With the win, Louisville City advances to the Fourth Round of the US Open Cup for the second straight season where they will play at MLS newcomer FC Cincinnati. Last year, Louisville City defeated the New England Revolution, 3-2, in a thrilling match in the fourth round. Instead of feeling excited about the prospect of facing another MLS opponent, Totsch said that the team had this as a goal at the start of the season.
“This is what we expect,” Totsch said after the game, before Thursday morning’s Fourth Round draw. “We want to come out and win and we expect to face an MLS team every year. We have the expectation in our own locker room that no matter what it is, we’re going to come out and we’re going to win and we’re going to face an MLS team when we come to that, and it’s going to be a good game and we’re going to give them everything.”