Djiby Fall swoops in, becomes FC Cincinnati's hero (again) in Cleveland matchup

CINCINNATI -- In his first game in almost a month, Djiby Fall resumed hero status.

The FC Cincinnati forward returned to the pitch Wednesday in the midst of his six-game United Soccer League suspension to lift his club to a 1-0 extra-time win over AFC Cleveland in a second-round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match at Nippert Stadium.

FCC advances to the third round of the single-elimination, all-level tournament May 31 at home against rival Louisville City FC.

Here are the top 9 takeaways from the match:

1. Recognizable but inexperienced lineup

FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch had said Tuesday he would be using a mix of regular starters and reserves -- some of whom aren't even usually in the available 18 for most games -- for this cup match against Cleveland, which plays in the lower division National Premier Soccer League. However, the lineup was at least mostly made up of recognizable names who have been around a while.

Still, it wasn't the group Koch would have brought out for league play, and seven starters had played two games or less this season as reserves.

Most notably among the starters, but not surprisingly, was Fall, who still has three games left on his six-game suspension but is eligible for non-league matches. Fellow forwards Andrew Wiedeman, a six-game starter, and Victor Mansaray, who has started twice, also joined Fall up top, and full-time starter Harrison Delbridge anchored the defense.

Eric Stevenson, Paul Nicholson and Pat McMahon got their first starts this season, but all three were starters last year. Dallas Jaye started in goal, as he did for this game last year. Three others made their first appearances on the pitch for FCC.

2. New defender gets nod

The club announced Wednesday afternoon that it had signed Xavier alumnus Garrett Halfhil to an amateur contract for remainder of the season. Hours later, he was in the starting lineup.

He played the full 120 minutes and helped as FCC preserved the shutout.

The defender from Virginia Beach, Va., has been part of the team's practice squad and now becomes eligible to play Open Cup and USL matches. Halfhill played for FCC in the preseason friendly against UC.

"It takes a lot (to do what he did)," Delbridge said. "He's been training with us for a while. He comes in every day and works hard. For him to come in and get on the field, going to school here at Xavier, it's awesome to see him get a chance and do as well as he did."

A four-year letter-winner at Xavier from 2011-2014 and Big East Tournament team selection, Halfhill holds the Musketeers' career record with 84 matches played and had six goals in his collegiate career with three registered in 2014.

3. Unnecessary extra time

FC Cincinnati dominated the game start to finish, with the exception of the first 15 minutes of the second half, and outshot AFC Cleveland 44-6, but the team simply couldn't finish opportunities.

That's been a common problem this season, but never to such an extent. In nine league games, FCC has registered nine goals, despite taking 112 shots to rank fifth overall in the USL.

FCC especially pushed for a goal late in regulation and brought in forward Kadeem Dacres for defensive midfielder Paul Nicholson in the 83rd minute. There was a flurry of chances as the game headed into stoppage time and again in the two 15-minute overtime periods.

GALLERY: FC Cincinnati beats AFC Cleveland 1-0

"That was cup soccer tonight," Koch said. "Obviously us playing at home, being the team from a higher league, we're supposed to win, but that doesn't always happen in cup soccer. It's a game of margins, but for the bulk of the 120 minutes, we really took it to them.

"We should have finished the game a lot earlier than we did, but give our players a lot of credit tonight. Other teams may go through games like that and may not win. If you go to penalty kicks, it becomes a lottery. Our guys had the resilience to go get the result right at the win, and a win is the win, and we'll take it."

4. Fall's heroics

Fall landed right back in his role as the team's top threat, and he had several chances inside the penalty box before his game-winner in the 117th minute.

He led FCC with 16 shots, including nine on goal, despite sitting out the last three games.

The veteran notched his seventh goal of the season on a header to drive in Wiedeman's service, helping FCC avoid penalty kicks.

"Quite frankly, he wasn't quite as good as he was that week before his suspension," Koch said. "Having said that, he hasn't played for a few games and it takes time to get yourself back in the swing of things. I think he did grow as the game went along, and he showed his personal resilience. Big-match players obviously step up in big moments, and that was a really special moment for him and for our team."

Fall said he was tired after the game but felt good getting back on the field.

"For me, I am just happy to be on the pitch and do what I do," he said. "I was dreaming every single day, missing the club, and the day has come (for a return). I was happy to be able to play and do what I've done all my life."

5. Missed opportunities

The home side did see the ball cross the goal line once in the first half, when Mansaray contested a ball served in and scored but was charged with a foul in the collision with goalkeeper Alex Ivanov.

Fall had another good chance to score in the first half, but instead of a goal, ended up with a yellow card. The team's leading scorer was in perfect position inside the six-yard box for a rebound when Ivanov batted away Derek Luke's shot in the 37th minute, but Fall's sliding attempt to finish it off was blocked by defender Coletun Long and Fall charged with taking him down.

Many of FCC's other opportunities came from long distance strikes, as the club tried to go overtop the crowded box. Ivanov finished with 15 saves for the game.

"They played almost a perfect road game," Koch said. "They came in, sat back and closed down the space and made it very difficult for us and we struggled to get behind them, and then we went further back for it. They made it difficult for us to break them down, but eventually we did break them down and we got the result."

6. Lucky breaks at other end

AFC Cleveland came out challenging after the break and had two inch-close chances cleared away at the goal line in the first 15 minutes of the second half. McMahon sent away one of those, off a corner kick in the 58th minute, and Jaye batted away the other one for one of his three saves.

Five minutes later, with FCC no longer appearing in control, Koch made his first substitution to insert veterans Corben Bone and Jimmy McLaughlin for Mansaray and Stevenson. The fresh bodies seemed to make an impact, as the momentum shifted back to FCC's favor.

7. Semi-sweet reward

As if three regular-season matches against Louisville City aren't enough, the U.S. Open Cup is throwing in a fourth one as FCC's reward for pulling out the extra-time win.

The two USL rivals will meet in the third round May 31 at Nippert Stadium in the first matchup since an ugly battle to a 1-1 draw on April 22, a game marred by Fall's red card and alleged biting incident that added another five games to his suspension.

Louisville City advanced to the third round by beating Tartan Devils, out of Oak Avalon (Pa.), 9-0.

"We're excited," Koch said. "I've only coached one game against Louisville, and I don't really have to think too far back as to how I felt during that game and after that game. When the day comes that we get to play against them, we'll be very, very excited to play against them."

8. Rest up

Before FCC thinks about the next cup game, it has a couple USL games to get through, including Saturday's home match against Bethlehem -- a team it already has lost to twice.

It's an important game as FCC tries to rebound from a 2-0 loss to Orlando City B in its last league match. However, having players like Delbridge and Wiedeman play a full 120 minutes, in addition to using starters like Dacres, Bone and McLaughlin, leaves the team a little weary heading into that match.

Koch said the guys who played the full match Wednesday will take it easy Thursday while those who rested have a regular training session. Everyone will regroup Friday for one full day of preparation together before hosting Bethlehem on Saturday night.

9. Attendance comparison

FC Cincinnati drew a paid attendance of 12,790, which was 4,122 more fans than it did for its second-round match at home last year. The second-year club also has about 5,000 more season-ticket holders this year, all of which count toward the paid attendance mark.

The Bailey, always full for league matches, was about three-fourths filled and the west side of the stadium decently filled, while other areas were more sparse.

"It's a school night, so to see that many fans stick around and get behind our group and support the players to the bitter end, that win is for them," Koch said. "I'm glad we gave them that special moment at the end."

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