FC Cincinnati playoff hopes could use win in final regular-season home game on Saturday

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati’s regular-season home finale Saturday at Nippert Stadium will be celebratory affair, with a pre-match Oktoberfest bash, a Pretzel Glass giveaway for the first 5,000 fans in the stadium and commemorative posters after the final whistle.

A win for the home team would ensure even more revelry. 

The Orange and Blue host the New York Red Bulls II in a 7 p.m. high-stakes match featuring a tussle for United Soccer League playoff positioning. FC Cincinnati has an opportunity to avenge a 4-0 loss to Red Bulls II in August and return to the win column before finishing the regular season on four-match road streak. 

“It’s massive for us. I mean, this is our last home game and then we go four on the road to close out the season and play for a playoff spot,” midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin said. “It’s always easier playing at home and having the fans behind us so we need to take advantage of the situation and get three points going into the road stretch.”

The match comes at a unique time for the Orange and Blue. If the season ended now, FC Cincinnati would be among the top eight Eastern Conference teams and thus would be assured a place in the USL playoffs. Only the top four host their first-round matches. 

But the standings are congested, each team still has a handful of regular-season matches to play and playoff spots are far from secure. Winning is the only thing FC Cincinnati can do to remain a principal player, and that’s something the franchise has not done since defeating Ottawa Fury FC in a 3-1 outing Aug. 23.

The team’s last two matches -- against Pittsburgh and at Harrisburg City -- were 1-1 draws. McLaughlin helped salvage a point in the latter outing by scoring the equalizer in the final seconds.

Sam de Wit set up the goal with a long pass from the backfield and Djiby Fall advanced play with a header. McLaughlin evaded a pair of defenders to put the ball in the back of the net.

“It was literally the last kick of the ball and I think it would have been pretty easy for us to give up on that game. Down 1-0, there were maybe 100 people in the stands on a Tuesday night, and we were kicking it a bit unfortunate the whole night. Just didn’t feel like it was going in,” McLaughlin said. “We kept going, we kept pushing and we got one last chance…to save a massive point for us going forward.”

McLaughlin said the plan is to carry that momentum forward against the Red Bulls II and forge a different ending than the August match. He said he didn’t want to make excuses for FC Cincinnati in that loss, but it was four days after the emotionally sapping 3-2 defeat by the New York Red Bulls MLS team in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals before a sell-out crowd of 33,250 at Nippert. 

Drained or not, coach Alan Koch said there was “no excuse” for FC Cincinnati’s performance.

“The performance up in New York wasn’t very good from us at all. Having said that, I think it was one of (New York's) best performances of the season. We obviously have learned a lot from that. I think we’ve started getting ourselves back on track,” Koch said.

The Red Bulls II rank sixth in the USL standings, two points ahead of FC Cincinnati, with wins in their last two matches. They’re 11-11-5 overall but just 2-5-5 on the road, while FC Cincinnati (9-9-9) has flourished at home (7-2-6) in USL play. 

FC Cincinnati has sold over 28,000 tickets, clipping its prior USL regular-season record of 25,308 against Orlando City B on Aug. 5. Because of the large crowd and Oktoberfest celebration, doors will open at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. That’s 90 minutes early instead of the customary 60 minutes.

While Koch has high expectations for the home team, he said league parity requires a quality 90-minute performance.

“That’s for us and that’s for New York on Saturday, too, because they’re a quality group,” Koch said. “They’ve been playing with a lot of confidence and had a lot of success recently. So it’s important for us to go out and nullify what they’ve been doing well but then obviously focus on the good work that we have been doing in the last few games.”

Depending on how the playoff picture comes into focus, it may be the last soccer clash at Nippert this season. The Orange and Blue play at Saint Louis FC Sept. 23, followed by matches at Charlotte Independence, Ottawa Fury FC and Toronto FC II.

SEEING RED: FC Cincinnati staffers will distribute red cards to fans upon entry so they can give a “Red Card to Cancer” at halftime. The initiative features the soccer franchise, UC Health, Children’s Hospital and the University of Cincinnati.

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