LOUISVILLE, KY — Didier Drogba‘s dazzling, star-studded career may have come to an end Thursday night under the bright lights of Lynn Stadium, in front of a packed house of 7,025 fans for the USL Cup final.
With eight league or cup titles and dozens of individual awards, the Chelsea legend was unable to add one final trophy to his mantlepiece, as Louisville City scored on a goal-mouth scramble off a corner kick and held on to win its second-straight USL Cup title. Drogba finished the game with six shots, but just one on target, a 40-yard free kick from the center of the field that Louisville City goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh parried away.
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It’s a setting he likely never expected he’d finish his career in, even when he signed with Phoenix Rising in 2017 and became part of the team’s ownership group. Phoenix looked mired for a poor finish before Rick Schantz took over as coach in June, leading the team into the playoffs and on a magic run to the final, which included three goals from Drogba in the playoffs.
It looked as though the USL script writers were bringing the drama to a crescendo, with Drogba adding a USL Cup to go with his four Premier League titles, four FA Cups and UEFA Champions League trophy, among others.
Unfortunately for Phoenix Rising, and perhaps more fortunately for Louisville City, Drogba’s touch was off on Thursday evening. Four of his free kicks went flying over the crossbar and he failed to fully connect on a late-game, audacious bicycle kick attempt. Drogba also earned a frustration yellow card for a tackle from behind.
“Look, you can see as the game goes on, we were down 1-0, his desire to get the ball, his desire to be involved (is there),” Schantz said. “He’s 40-years old playing against 20-somethings in a league that’s up and coming. It’s not easy. The opportunity I got to coach him this year blows me away that I was able to share the field with one of the best players in the sport.”
Even in defeat, Drogba remained humble and gracious, staying on the field to watch the trophy ceremony with his team, congratulating the squad and coach for making it to the final and telling them to keep their heads up.
“It’s been incredible,” Phoenix Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski said following the match. “His talent on the field speaks for itself but the biggest thing I take, the level he’s been at and everything he’s won, he’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet. He’s invited us to his house for team barbecues, opened his doors, cooked for us for hours, treated everyone as an equal, with respect.
“That says a lot considering the guys he’s played with. Coming to USL and treating us like that, teaching us everything he’s learned, that’s one of the most valuable things I’ll take, No matter what level you get to, you can still be humble and treat everyone with respect.”
While Drogba took much of the spotlight ahead of the game, it was a trio of unsung players who shut him down all evening; Midfielder and Louisville City captain Paolo DelPiccolo and centerbacks Paco Craig and Alexis Souahy. For all the experience LouCity returned with DelPiccolo, Craig and others, Souahy is just a 23-year-old rookie playing in his first cup final. And yet, the young defender from France who was released from Le Havre’s youth academy four years ago played as well and resolutely as he had all season. Craig, a West Ham academy alum and USL First-Team XI honoree, was strong as always against the Ivorian, and DelPiccolo and Drogba each had their share of battles in midfield.
“(They were) so good, so good,” Hackworth said about his defenders performance on Drogba. “Especially, Paco, he’s first team and everyone knows how good he is, but Alexis is a star on the rise and we might be hearing his name for a long time to come at a high level.”
Not to be lost in the talk about Drogba is the incredible achievement for Louisville City to win a second consecutive title. Louisville City lost its coach, James O’Connor, to Orlando City at the end of June, and the team ended up going with a triumvirate of player coaches for the next 6 weeks of action: DelPiccolo, George Davis and the USL Cup MVP Luke Spencer.
John Hackworth took over in mid-August and after making some little adjustments – tightening the defensive line and introducing more high pressing to force turnovers – LouCity found its rhythm. Even with five coaches this season, the team was steady all year long until down the stretch, when LouCity put on the after burners. The club finished the year winning its last ten games, including the final four in the playoffs to take the USL crown.
“The way they competed in training, and then went back in the locker room, I thought I was going to have to settle some fights,” said Hackworth, noting he knew this team could make a run for the title within the first couple days of practice. “But they’re a brotherhood. They have this high standard, they want to be pushed, they want to be coached. I thought, ‘if we can get this right…if we can clean up some things, it’s going to happen.'”
Drogba didn’t speak to the media following the match, but at the pre-match press conference, he revealed that after Phoenix Rising’s 2-1 win over Orange County for the Western Conference title, he received a few phone calls about continuing playing. He then hinted that perhaps the USL Cup final wouldn’t be the finale to his career.
When asked if Drogba revealed anything to him following the match, Schantz deadpanned and said, “That will be a separate press conference.”