FC Cincinnati has a chance to solidify playoff hopes with toughest part of schedule behind them

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati persisted through arguably the toughest part of its schedule and still remains in good position for a playoff spot, but the back part of the United Soccer League slate could be a golden opportunity to climb up the Eastern Division table.

Eleven of the final 13 league games are against opponents sitting behind sixth-place FC Cincinnati, including Saturday’s matchup against eighth-place Harrisburg City.

The question is: Can FC Cincinnati (7-6-6) take advantage?

“We know we've played most of the teams at the top of the league, but we've said all along it doesn't change now because there is so much parity in this league,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “There are no easy games. Harrisburg is a very difficult opponent because they are confident right now and they are going to come in fearless."

Koch understands the importance of a game like this.

“If we want to give ourselves a chance to differentiate ourselves from teams, Saturday is that perfect opportunity. It's another six-point game where we've got to go out and get the three points and start building the gap with other teams.”

FC Cincinnati helped its cause last weekend when it went on the road to beat rival Louisville City FC and closed the gap with leader Charleston to eight points. The Orange and Blue are now just five points behind second-place Charlotte and two points behind third-place Louisville.

A month ago, the No. 4-12 teams were all within five points of each other, while the top three seemed to be separating themselves from the rest of the pack. It’s now a seven-point division between the No. 3 team and No. 12 team, and FC Cincinnati is five points ahead of ninth-place Orlando City, the first team sitting outside the playoff picture.

“We've done pretty well against the top half of the table, and we're getting to the point in our season where we get to play more of the bottom half, so it's going to be really important to get as many points out of this as we can,” FC Cincinnati midfielder Eric Stevenson said. “I think we've started to pick it up the last month or so, so we should really be getting results in these games coming up against teams that are below us.”

Eleven of FC Cincinnati’s first 19 league games were against the top-five teams.

FC Cincinnati midfielder Kenney Walker said the remaining part of the schedule almost feels like an entirely new season because six of the games are against opponents the Orange and Blue haven’t seen yet. Harrisburg (6-8-5) is one of them.

FC Cincinnati midfielder Kenney Walker controls the ball against Saint Louis FC during their game at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati Saturday, June 24, 2017. (E.L. Hubbard/WCPO Contributor)

That means a new set of challenges, Walker said.

“We were talking among ourselves, and it seems like we've only see like seven teams throughout the whole season so far,” Walker said. “We haven't seen New York, we haven't seen Harrisburg, Ottawa. They will be completely new games, so it's good they are all behind us in the standings, but at the same time it's rough because you have to come in with new game plans, rather than almost going back and re-executing the game plan you had earlier in the season.”

With a win Saturday and another good result next weekend against Rochester, FC Cincinnati could head back into U.S. Open Cup play Aug. 2 at Miami FC on a four-game win streak in league games. The Orange and Blue host an international friendly with Spanish La Liga’s Valencia CF on Monday.

Coming out of the Cup quarterfinal at Miami, FC Cincinnati returns home for its third straight home league game Aug. 5 against Orlando City B, after which the schedule becomes loaded with road games.

Koch said that is why the Louisville win last weekend was so big, as FC Cincinnati has struggled on the road and needed a little confidence boost before finishing the season away from home. The final four games, at the end of September and heading into early October, are on the road.

“Getting that win was important because it's a rivalry, but it was important for us to go on the road and get that win too,” Koch said. “We believe we can go on the road and pick up points. We haven't been that successful on the road so far this season and hopefully Saturday's game is a catalyst to growing confidence.”

Packing in as many points now, especially with home games the next three weekends, could take some of the pressure off when FC Cincinnati does hit the road again.

The two games against opponents ahead of FC Cincinnati in the table are both away -- at Louisville on Aug. 12 and at Charlotte on Sept. 29.

“We just have to take advantage of the opportunities coming up because it’s something that can separate us from the pack or it could keep us from the rest of the table,” Walker said.

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