Louisville resident Ken Luther looks forward to donning his purple Louisville City FC shirt and bellowing through his bullhorn when the club opens its sophomore season in March.
Since the conclusion of the unexpectedly successful first season – the club made the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference Finals – Luther has missed the pre-game ritual as supporters march down Washington Street toward Slugger Field, wave flags, bang drums, hold colored smoke bombs and sing songs.
In fact, Luther said that without the club, he wouldn’t be living here.
During his military career, the Michigan native and retired U.S. Army colonel had come to appreciate life as a soccer fan in Europe and other places. During his last assignment, at Fort Knox, he lived in Louisville, and when he retired in 2013, he said he wouldn’t live in a city without a professional soccer team.
He immediately got involved with the Louisville Coopers, one of the team’s fan clubs and named after the barrel makers. He now serves as the Coopers’ president.
A handful of club members head to the stadium long before each home game to set up their gear. Then they rally at Whiskey Row or Against the Grain Brewery, for example, to moisten their vocal chords, sing songs and tell stories before they march to the stadium.
When the players enter the field, the crowd roars its rendition of “My old Kentucky Home.” The singing – you can learn the songs here – continues for the entire game, with the exception of a short break at halftime. After the match, it’s back to Whiskey Row.
“For some of us, it’s a whole-day thing, which is great,” Luther said.
Luther follows European soccer, especially Manchester United and VfB Stuttgart, a city in Germany in which he lived for two years.
“I pay a lot more attention to Louisville City than to those other teams,” he said.
The team’s success and growing popularity have helped.
“Every game got bigger and bigger,” he said. “It just became fantastic.”
The dedication of Luther and other fans is critical to the soccer club’s success: Two-thirds of the revenues are generated by ticket sales.
While the club’s long-term prospects in Louisville look to hinge upon on whether the city and the club can build a soccer-specific stadium – the feasibility of which will be studied this year – in the short term, the club’s staff, players and fans are gearing up for the upcoming season.
The team finished second in the USL in season tickets sold and average attendance of about 6,700.
Amanda Duffy, the club’s president, said attendance moved in the right direction and averaged 7,500 in the second half of the season. But the team also has to plan carefully to avoid its home games coinciding with other major events, such as March Madness or the Derby.
Season tickets are available and run from $180 in the family, supporter and goal zones to $480 in the upper club premium area. The schedule will be announced this week.
Duffy said the first year exceeded expectations, both in terms of fan support and team performance. The club wants to build on that foundation, and that means a lot of work: On the athletic side, the club has to make sure the top performers remain and that it signs players that improve the team. On the marketing side, the club wants to expand its fan base and attract more sponsors: It has hired its first director of corporate partnership.
In its inaugural season, the team won 14 matches, lost eight and drew six, racking up 55 goals, or an average of nearly two per game, conceding 34. The club finished second out of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference. It also made it to the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup, beating second-division team Indy 11 in the third round. In the fourth round the team fell to Major League Soccer team and four-time cup champion Chicago Fire in extra time, by a score of 0-1. If LCFC had won that match, it would have been among the tournament’s last 16 teams.
Last year, the team had 21 players, including league MVP Matt Fondy, a forward who scored 22 goals, tying a single-season USL record.
Luther said that beyond talent, Fondy impresses because of his hustle.
“You just watch how hard he works during the game, it’s unbelievable,” he said.
Fondy remains on the roster, as does Aoadhan Quinn, who won the League Goal of the Season award for a beautiful left-footed free kick with which he curled the ball into the goal’s upper right corner, bouncing it off the post and into the net.
But the team last month lost fullback and the league’s 2015 Defender of the Year Bryan Burke, who has joined the second-division club Jacksonville Armada FC.
Duffy said the team has 19 signed players so far for the second season but will expand its roster to about 25, to give the team a little more depth than last year in case of injuries.
The club recently signed University of Kentucky alum George Davis IV, a midfielder and Ohio native who played with Orlando City in 2012 and has scored 19 goals in the last two seasons; Mark-Anthony Kaye, a Canadian midfielder and former Ontario University Athletics Rookie of the year; and veteran defender and former MLS player Ben Newnam.
The players are all full-time professionals, meaning they have no jobs on the side, though they may earn additional dollars through soccer clinics. The club does not provide details about how much players earn, but Duffy said players in the USL earn a monthly salary between $1,000 and “several thousand.”
The players come to Louisville generally in February and stay in the community through October, with some remaining all year. The club has three coaches and 11 employees in an office at 127 S. 6th St.
The club’s roughly 45 investors eventually hope to move the club into the MLS, Duffy said. They also want an affiliation with a first-division club, but are not actively pursuing that at this point to better concentrate on the upcoming season.
The club also is focused on developing its brand and expanding its presence in Louisville, she said. Last year, the team was an abstraction, but this year it is a proven product that is enjoying good community support.
“There’s a general good buzz going on about the team,” she said.
Luther said he has been impressed with the club holding on to a core group of players and making some good signings.
“I think we’re definitely a candidate to go very far,” he said.
Regardless, he’ll don his purple shirt, sing songs and use his bullhorn to fire up the crowd.