Louisville football programs, clubs on the growing popularity of the sport

A famous quote from former Brazilian international football star, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known as Pelé, highlights one of the most important qualities a football player should have: enthusiasm.

“Enthusiasm is everything,” Nascimento said. “It should be taut and vibrate like a guitar string.”

Over the past decade, Louisville has stepped in to serve as a guitar string, returning the energy to local teams.

There are soccer programs and clubs for kids as young as two years old in Louisville. And with so much choice, the managers we spoke to say they want the kids to play, even if it’s not with their band.

Click here for tickets to Racing Louisville and LouCity games.

Here’s how some of the biggest names in Louisville football got their start:

The coaches
LouCity, Racing Louisville, UofL

Danny Cruz, LouCity Head Coach

After arriving in the city in 2018, Danny Cruz rose through the ranks at Lou City until he was appointed head coach in October 2021.

A former professional football player used to traveling frequently for opportunities, Cruz now resides in Louisville with his wife and young son.

Falling in love with football was a season, not a specific date for Cruz.

“It wasn’t a specific time or anything like that,” he said. “It was more the ability to be around good people and to compete…and I was quite fast, so that helped me.”

James O’Connor, Former LouCity Head Coach

James O’Connor is the chairman and chief executive of Soccer Holdings, he was head coach of United Soccer League team LouCity when it was formed.

Her company owns both LouCity and Racing Louisville FC of the National Women’s Soccer League.

“As a young boy growing up in Ireland with three young brothers, all we did was play football,” O’Connor explained. “As far back as I can remember, all we did was play football. Even when we finished school, the bag fell off, we went out and played football. It’s something I loved doing it all my life.”

Ali Ahmadi, Founder of Javanon FC

While Ekic represents one of Louisville’s youngest powerhouse players, self-proclaimed “Louisville football grandfather” Ali Ahmadi says he fell in love with the sport following a serious accident.

“When I was about nine years old, I was hit in a car accident and crushed my left leg,” Ahmadi said. “I like the game like children, I wanted to play in the streets, but when my leg broke for about 18 months, we couldn’t afford to fix it, I became short-footed. My leg is gotten short.”

Doctors told him he could never play football again, but that didn’t stop him from doing what he loved to do.

“It was just a situation where I decided, I guess at the age of 10, that I would do whatever I can to be a football player,” he said.

Ahmadi grew up in Tehran, the capital of Iran, and came to America when he was in high school. After spending time establishing football in the Midwest, he moved to Louisville during his college years.

He continued to build football programs, from a college club, to the professional indoor team Louisville Lightning, to the “Javanon” youth football club.

Karen Ferguson Dayes, UofL Women’s Soccer Head Coach

Karen Ferguson-Dayes has been the head women’s soccer coach at the University of Louisville since 2000, and is the winningest coach in her program’s history.

Ferguson-Dayes took a struggling program and created a top 25 professional football producer.

Her journey to falling in love with the sport begins with Irish dancing, she says.

“My mum had all three of us daughters in Irish dancing,” she said. “I remember we were playing football in one of the tournaments I was at, and I wanted to do that instead of dancing. She got us into football and it was love at first sight.”

Jean-Michel Hayden, UofL Men’s Soccer Head Coach

John Michael Hayden, the young football star from Trinity High School, went on to an illustrious football career.

From college to pros, Hayden now lives here in Louisville and works as the head coach of the UofL men’s soccer team.

“Many years ago, my dad was really into it,” he described of his passion. “I played football all the time. I fell in love with this game. There were a lot of diverse people playing the game, from all over. I really enjoyed it.”

The players
LouCity, Racing Louisville

Joshua Wynder, Defender of LouCity

Another of the community’s young stars, Joshua Wynder, is set to sign a huge contract with Major League Soccer, the second local player to turn pro.

Following in the footsteps of his older brother Elijah, Wynder joined LouCity when he was just 15, signing his contract in 2021.

“I would say it’s a fun sport,” he said. “There’s a lot more than what it looks like…scoring a goal. There’s more tactics, things you don’t see by watching.”

jessica mcdonald, Racing Louisville FC striker

Women’s soccer veteran, World Cup champion and international superstar Jessica McDonald specifically sought a position with the Racing Louisville team because of the appeal of our community.

She is a mother and was ready for a community where she could call home with her son.

“In my first game, I scored two goals…in my own team,” she laughed. “I ran the wrong way and scored on the wrong goal and celebrated twice. But you know, you have to start somewhere.”

Emina Ekic, Racing Louisville FC Midfielder

Born and raised in Louisville, and a true product at every level of our city’s programs, Emina Ekic fell in love with football at a very young age.

“I grew up watching my dad play,” Ekic said. “My dad played, my uncle played and my grandfather. They played at Champions Park, where the facility is.”

It’s a looping moment for her as Champions Park is where she now trains with her pro team. Ekic says when she was young, she would go every Sunday and watch her family play.

“That’s when I fell in love with football. I was imitating them playing, always watching them, picnicking with my mother and grandmother while they were sitting on the sidelines to watch,” she said.

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