Only four or five months ago, Enrique Montano was still attending classes at San Jose State in sunny California. He was close to family, he was under the yearlong sun, and Kentucky was just a place heâ€™d heard of but never been to. So when he got the call to play professional soccer from Louisville City FC â€“ the United Soccer Leagueâ€™s newest member â€“ he jumped at the chance, even though he wasnâ€™t yet finished with classes.
â€œThankfully my teachers allowed me to finish my remaining classes online,â€ says Montano. â€œSo I have been doing them online since I moved in February.â€
Montano, like every single one of his teammates, made the move to Louisville because it proved to be an opportunity to make an impact â€“ to start or continue a professional career in soccer at a place that has never had it before but that has aspirations to one day host Major League Soccer (MLS) games. For now, Louisville City FC is an affiliate to an MLS team, Orlando, and in turn is getting a team one rung down on the tier of soccer leagues in the United States, and its first taste of professional soccer.
For defender Tarek Morad, another California transplant, his experience is similar to Montano in the sense that heâ€™s at a new place and has to get to know a lot of people very quickly if the team is to succeed.
â€œWhen you get to a team with a bunch of new guys, you have to go to extra effort to get to know each other off the field. In college itâ€™s a little easier, as you know each other by going to class. But when you play professionally, you need to get to know each other, so you can build that chemistry, which is tougher, but itâ€™s a challenge that we have all accepted, and have done very well so far.â€
As for the head coach, James Oâ€™Connor, the move has been a big yet pleasurable transition. Having retired from soccer in 2014 after an 18-year career, Oâ€™Connor tried his hand at management with his last club â€“ Orlando City, where upon retirement he became the assistant coach. But when the opportunity to be the head coach of newly formed Louisville City FC presented itself, the 35-year-old Irishman and his wife jumped at the chance to try a new city, even if it meant leaving the sun and clear skies of Orlando.
â€œWeâ€™ve been made to feel very welcome here, and we were impressed with how warm and genuine the people were,â€ explains Oâ€™Connor. â€œThe snow was very much a culture shock, and that took a bit getting used to, but by and large weâ€™ve had a great experience.â€
One of the most unique challenges faced by Oâ€™Connor was one rarely faced by any coach in soccer: having to build an entire team from scratch, instead of adding a few players here and there to an already existing roster in the off-season. The task involved Oâ€™Connor and his assistant scouring the globe for the right talent, from mainland U.S. to as far as England, Denmark and Israel and Serbia.
â€œItâ€™s not too many times a coach is going to have to come in and sign 18-20 new players, so from that point of view itâ€™s a challenge. But we spent an awful lot of time analyzing the individuals we felt fit the right criteria that we were looking for,â€ adds Oâ€™Connor.
He continues: â€œFor us itâ€™s all about making sure that the players are aware of the clubâ€™s expectations, and to remember the team will always come first and no individual will be above what weâ€™re trying to achieve here. When we got into preseason we set out the parameters that we feel we needed to achieve success in the coming season and, thankfully, everyone has bought into that.â€
One player who has come to Louisville from further afield is Charlie Adams, a 20 -year-old English midfielder, who has been a professional for the past four years, already having signed with his local English club, Brentford, at the age of 15 and signed his first pro deal at 17.
â€œI could have easily stayed in England,â€ says Adams. â€œBut I decided to do something different, and I felt that this was a great opportunity for myself and would be great for my career.â€
For Adams, who grew up around London his entire life, the most pleasant surprise about Louisville was how much it has offered in terms of food. With the team living downtown in an apartment building, heâ€™s already stopped by Eddie Merlotâ€™s when his mom came to visit a few weeks ago, while his teammates have already paid a visit to Taco Luchador â€“ home of some of the best tacos in the city.
â€œIâ€™ve enjoyed working with the new manager,â€ adds Adams. â€œJames (Oâ€™Connor) is a great coach and fella. The opening day of the season here was great as well, as we had close to 7,000 people in the stands.â€
Whatâ€™s more interesting for Adams, though, is the difference in style of play between the U.S. and his native England. Most notably, the game is slower and a little less physical than it is in Europe.
â€œHere the style of soccer is very athletic, but itâ€™s not quite as physical as in England, and itâ€™s a little slower, which is good,â€ adds Adams, who does not look back fondly on his days of playing for lower-league clubs in his youth and being at the tail end of some ankle crunching tackles.
For now though, itâ€™s up to the team to keep on delivering wins for their ever growing fan base. So far, Louisville is undefeated and Tulsa is up next at home, so the team are hoping to keep that run going, knowing that the atmosphere will likely be even better than in games past. For a defender like Morad, the key is consistency.
â€œWeâ€™ve been doing well, as we havenâ€™t lost a game, so we have that kind of winnerâ€™s mentality ingrained in us, but at the same time weâ€™re looking to find some consistency, where we play really well in the first half and wonâ€™t do as well in the second, or the other way around.â€
In the end though, itâ€™s all about pleasing that fan base by winning, so that they will continue to come out to games and keep the team motivated and show how much of a soccer base there truly is in Louisville.
â€œThe fans have been electric,â€ concludes Oâ€™Connor. â€œThey had a set of drums at the last game, and I think that the fan experience is really starting to build, and weâ€™ve tried to give them a team that they could be proud of.â€
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune