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Has Didier Drogba played his final game as a professional?

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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.”

Barefoot to Big Time: MLS prospect’s 10,403-mile journey

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
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If pangaea never broke, Kentucky would still be a long ways from Lesotho.

Even a cursory look at globe is daunting, especially for a 15-year-old kid making the 9,000 mile trek from Southern Africa to Midwest America on his own.

This is at the heart of the story of University of Kentucky star midfielder and MLS Combine participant Napo Mastoso, who hasn’t seen his mother or father since moving to the United States almost seven-and-a-half years ago.

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Matsoso grew up in Maseru, Lesotho’s capital city, awed by his father Thato’s skills on the ball as a member of the country’s national team and local club Arsenal FC.

Napo darted barefoot through the youth soccer landscape in Lesotho, figuratively cutting his teeth on the opposition while physically cutting up his legs on the dirt pitches of Maseru.

Barefoot.

“The dirt hurts your body pretty bad,” Matsoso said. “When you slide or someone trips you. … I played barefoot until I was 12 or 13 years old. My father bought me cleats, they were not like labeled, they were just random cleats.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

Napo Matsoso hasn’t seen his parents since he was 15 years old, encouraged by them to leave the 145th most populous nation in the world for a chance on the schools and youth soccer fields of Louisville, Kent. Moreover, he said they haven’t seen him play a minute since he left the country.

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His father’s professional teammate at Lesotho’s Arsenal, goalkeeper Thabane Sutu, had gone on to play in Egypt and coach in Turkey before settling into an opportunity in America with Louisville club United 1996 FC.

Sutu — now the GK coach at Louisville City FC — became friends with Marc Maguire, a father of two United players. Conversations on Sutu’s dreams to bring young Lesotho talent to the U.S. turned to action when Maguire welcomed two young players who he’d later adopt: Sunny Jane and Lepe Seetane.

It was an incredible experience for both. Maguire, now Jane and Seetane’s “American parent”, had two exceptional sons.

“They wouldn’t just clean their room,” said Maguire, a car dealer in Louisville. “We’d come home and find them cleaning the whole house.”

Both earned D-1 scholarships, with Seetane playing 78 games for Northwestern between 2010-13 and Jane earning All-ACC second team status at Maryland en route to a pro career with Wilmington Hammerheads and, currently, Richmond Kickers.

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Four years after Jane and Seetane arrived, Maguire welcomed Matsoso. The experience followed suit, though Matsoso was understandably reserved at first.

“He’s a great kid,” Maguire said. “As we got to know him better, we discovered he’s quite hilarious, maybe the funniest person I know. He’s conscientious, he’s a hard worker.”

He had to be, moving from a world of hard pitches and harder tackles to the artificial turf and expensive cleats.

Some transitions were easy enough, like the on-field. Matsoso scored 29 goals and added 19 assists as a freshman at St. Francis High School in Louisville.

“It took me a long time to play on turf then on natural grass,” Matsoso said. “It also took me a long time get used to the cleats.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

The soccer part was easier than the myriad emotional issues that would seem to come with leaving everything behind to pursue a goal. Picture this teenager, uprooted. He was fortunately to have a loving new family here, and was at least able to update his Lesotho parents via phone.

But this was a rare opportunity.

“It was pretty hard but I knew it was going to be better for me, and my parents knew it was going to be better for me,” Matsoso said.

“They knew if I didn’t make the decision, things would’ve been different because not many people go to school. People will stay in the street, or rob people, do all the bad things. They knew at the end of the day that I’d be happy.”

@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics
@UKMensSoccer | UK Athletics

Now Matsoso has hope that his hard work and electric gifts could bring about a reunion. He’s excitedly told his family about the MLS Combine, trying to explain the standard of the league and his chances to succeed.

Jane has been capped 7 times by the Lesotho national team and has assured Matsoso that he can contribute at the national team level. That means Matsoso may be on the verge of a reunion with the loved ones he left to pursue this worldwide sport.

“The head coach from Lesotho has contacted me asking how I feel, if I’m ready to play on the national team, and I’ve told him that I think I’m ready whenever I get the call-up,” said Matsoso, who is in the process of obtaining an American green card.

Matsoso was fantastic at Kentucky, first called to our attention by coach Johan Cedergren last Fall. Cedergren said Matsoso keeps teams off-balance, and the attacking midfielder can go box-to-box as well. He scored 19 goals and 20 assists in his four years at UK, thrice named First Team Conference USA after an All-Freshman Team campaign in 2013.

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“I like to get my teammates involved and make sure everyone is on the same page and involved in everything that the team is doing,” he said. “I’m trying to be a leader.”

Now comes the Combine in Carson, California. It’s 10,403 miles from Lesotho’s capital to the home of the LA Galaxy.

“I’ve always wanted to take it to the next level,” Matsoso said. “My dad when I was young he would take me to his professional soccer games and I just saw how much fun he had and how excited people were to watch him play. I was like, ‘I want to be like him, and I want to make the fans happy to come watch soccer’.”

That next step comes when he hears his name called Friday.

Follow @NicholasMendola