Caught in between the thrill of a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup and the quest for a United Soccer League trophy, FC Cincinnati plows forward with a chance to gain some ground in the USL playoff picture before hosting yet another Cup game June 28 against MLS side Chicago Fire FC.
Cincinnati advanced to the Round of 16 in front of a non-finals Cup record crowd of 30,160 and now turns its attention toward Saturday’s home match against USL Eastern Division leader Charleston Battery.
“We're embracing it,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “I think that's the beauty of a new club. In our second year, we've had to deal with a lot of adversity. We've had to deal with a lot of new situations and uncharted territory for all clubs, but we're embracing it and attacking things head on.”
Koch said the win Wednesday -- which came against a lineup of nine regulars for the Crew -- does spark some added confidence for the club; however, he also doesn’t want to make the victory “bigger than it really is.”
While it was a huge moment for FC Cincinnati, its fans and the city, there is no prize for advancing or for beating an in-state MLS rival. There are still a lot of games to be played before any trophies are awarded. FC Cincinnati is one of two USL teams left (Sacramento Republic beat Real Salt Lake) and one of three second-tier clubs to get through the fourth round with upsets of MLS sides (North American Soccer League’s Miami FC beat Orlando City).
FC Cincinnati lost 3-2 to Round of 16 opponent Chicago Fire FC in a preseason match in Florida, but that was well before either club was ready for a regular-season game.
“You get in this and you want to win,” FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding said. “It's for our city. It's bigger than the players, the owners and the staff. We'll get back out there and try to get a little closer, and we'll be ready for the next one (against the Fire), too.”
FC Cincinnati will continue to put its best foot forward, but the ultimate goal remains a USL championship. Right now, Charleston Battery (8-2-3, 27 points) is starting to pull ahead for the top seed in the Eastern Division while FC Cincinnati (4-5-4, 16 points) sits in a log jam among the middle of the table.
Eight teams, including Cincinnati and June 24 foe St. Louis FC, have 15-17 points in the division, and make up the No. 4-11 spots in the table. The top eight make the playoffs.
“We're feeling high (from the win), but we go right back to work,” Berding said. “...We have a big match coming up Saturday so it will sort of come right down to the ground and get back to work. Having said that, we have a lot of confidence that we put the work in and we know the squad and the fans that are going to push our team toward the postseason and the goal would be to have that special feeling from (the Crew win) at the end.”
Saturday’s game against Charleston is certainly a chance to make up some points, but FC Cincinnati has never beaten the Battery in four matches dating back to last season. Twice, the Orange and Blue lost in the opener at Charleston, and there also was the 2-1 loss at home in the first round of the playoffs in October.
The best FC Cincinnati has managed was a 1-1 draw at home last July.
“Anytime you play a team that's ahead of you in the standings, it's a chance to gain points,” FC Cincinnati captain and center back Austin Berry said. “We've got them at home. We've been close several times against Charleston and we're just looking to put in a full game.”
FC Cincinnati outside back Matt Bahner said between the Crew game and the match with Charleston, this could be a chance to set the tone for the rest of the season. Cincinnati is three USL games away from completing the first half.
“They are obviously at the top of the table for a reason,” Bahner said of Charleston. “They are scoring a lot of goals, and they are a good team. We are trying to get to their level, and we know we can be. This week with the Crew game and Charleston, top of the table, it's two tough games but I feel we can use it as kind of a statement week for us.”
Fatigue is a concern, as the U.S. Open Cup has added two more games than last year to the already extended schedule, thanks to the league slate moving from 30 to 32 matches this season.
Wednesday’s win against the Crew in particular “took a lot out of the group,” Koch said, and the quick turnaround to Charleston won’t be easy. Then, FC Cincinnati will play four games in 13 days, including the Cup fifth-round match, and all three of those league games are against teams in the top 11 in the Eastern Division.
Koch plans to rotate players as much as he can while still putting out the best lineups possible. The rotation will look nothing like the reserve-laden lineup he trotted out for the June 3 loss at Rochester. A few regular players rested Wednesday because they “were not 100 percent,” but Koch said he expects them to be ready Saturday. Jimmy McLaughlin and Justin Hoyte both were among the reserves Wednesday, and Kadeem Dacres also did not play.
“We have some players that are fatigued, but we'll do what we need to make sure they recover as quickly as possible and we put a good group out Saturday,” Koch said.
FC Cincinnati is playing some of its best soccer right now, going 5-1-1 overall since entering Open Cup play May 17 with a second-round, overtime win over AFC Cleveland. The loss in that stretch was a 1-0 decision at Rochester in a game that few starters played.
Koch said Wednesday’s match against Columbus was the closest the club has gotten to a perfect 90 minutes, but as a team on the rise, he fully expects opponents to continue to throw their best at FC Cincinnati.
This upcoming stretch of games is a chance to see how the players respond.
“We're riding the wave, but we're in a good position and we feel like we could be in a better position in the league, and that's what we're working toward and we're enjoying a good long Cup run, and long may it continue,” Koch said.