FC Cincinnati's magic runs out in U.S. Open Cup semifinals

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati was less than 20 minutes away from extending its magical U.S. Open Cup run into the final round but finally ran out of gas.

The Orange and Blue let go of a two-goal lead late in its semifinal match, allowing Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls to rally for a 3-2 win in extra time Tuesday in front of a non-finals record crowd of 33,250 fans at Nippert Stadium.

Cincinnati, a second-year United Soccer League club, had outlasted every other non-MLS squad in the tournament to become the first lower division team to make the final four since 2011.

Here is a look at the top 9 takeaways from the loss:

1. Not just another letdown

Shortly after the game, some fans had already taken to social media to express how this loss was a typical Cincinnati letdown.

Comparisons were drawn with the Bengals’ playoff meltdown against the Steelers in 2015 and the Reds’ playoff loss to San Francisco in which they blew a 2-0 series lead to end the 2012 postseason.

This is not the same. FC Cincinnati was fortunate to even last this long and was the unquestioned underdog as a second division club facing a first division team. Getting to the semifinals was an impressive feat, especially for a team in just its second season.

“I think anytime you are up 2-0 in a game and don't win, you are going to be disappointed in the end,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “But, throwing that aside, nothing but pride, absolute pride. The players put in everything they could out there on the pitch tonight for our team, our club and our city. I just told the players they could leave here very, very proud of the effort tonight, not only in this game but throughout this Cup run. It's been truly magical.” 

2. Late-game fatigue

The Orange and Blue took a 2-0 lead in the 62nd minute when Cincinnati native Austin Berry headed in Kenney Walker’s corner kick at the far post, but New York battled back with a pair of quick goals from Gonzalo Vernon and Bradley Wright-Phillips to tie the game in the 78th minute.

Wright-Phillips then notched the game-winner in the first period of extra time, in the 101st minute. FC Cincinnati had not been scored on all tournament and lasted 585 minutes into its Cup run before giving up the first goal.

In the three minutes between Vernon’s goal and Wright-Phillips’ equalizer, it seemed like FC Cincinnati just dropped. Berry said it might have been overconfidence, but Koch called it fatigue. At that point, it sure seemed Cincinnati had run out of steam.

“The higher you go in this game, the quicker the game is played at,” Koch said. “Obviously, our players threw everything they could into the game. We're a second division team, they are obviously a first division team. They just kept on going. They had the players to go out and take care of business, and playing against players that are used to playing day in and day out at a high tempo, you're going to keep fighting. Our players kept fighting until the end, but eventually we wore down.”

3. Koch’s approach

FC Cincinnati went with a 3-5-2 to start the game, likely in an effort to counter New York’s dominant midfield without completely leaving itself susceptible to the Red Bulls’ high-pressure attack.

Justin Hoyte, who often plays center back, joined Matt Bahner in the wingback position as two players capable of making stops on defense but also solid distributors in the attack. Sem de Wit played center back with Berry and Harrison Delbridge to his sides, and Danni Konig and Andrew Wiedeman played up top with Corben Bone, Kenney Walker and Aodhan Quinn backing them up.

The biggest surprise of the starting lineup was that Jimmy McLaughlin was on the bench after also sitting the start of Saturday’s game at Louisville. However, the decision to use him as a “super sub” was consistent with other Cup matches, where Koch tactically saved a few players like McLaughlin before inserting them as fresh bodies for a second-half push. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out the same way this time.

4. New York’s tactics

The Red Bulls featured a strong lineup with just one change from its last MLS match, inserting backup goalie Ryan Meara in place of Luis Robles.

They came out in a 3-6-1 that played up their reputation as one of the best midfield groups in MLS, and it worked in terms of giving the visitors the possession advantage. New York had possession for 68.4 percent of regulation and outshot FC Cincinnati 25-6.

Though FC Cincinnati took advantage early on the counter attack to create some chances, the tactic worked well for the Red Bulls, as it did eventually tire out the home side.

“We knew they were a tough match,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “We knew they were well-coached and well-organized, and it was just about our ability to stay after the game and feel like we could overwhelm them over time. It ended up working that way. We took the hard route, but I think our team showed our character in a big way.”

5. Scoring early

There were concerns whether FC Cincinnati could score in this tournament without Djiby Fall, who was suspended because of yellow card accumulation after picking up his third in the quarterfinals. Fall had scored all four of the team’s goals to this point.

However, even without Fall, Cincinnati was able to take its earliest lead of its Cup run when Bone found the back of the net in the 31st minute for his first goal of the season in any competition. The play began with a cross from Wiedeman to Konig, who chested the ball down to the oncoming Bone.

FC Cincinnati had scored all of its other Cup goals after halftime with one in the 49th minute against Louisville City accounting for the quickest score prior to Tuesday.

6. Make it two

Berry’s header goal in the 62nd minute gave FC Cincinnati its largest lead of the tournament, as four of the five wins were 1-0 decisions. The other game, against MLS side Chicago Fire SC, remained scoreless through 120 minutes of action and was decided in penalty kicks.

When asked what he was thinking after the goal, Berry said he kind of blacks out until running back to lineup for the ensuing kickoff. He did celebrate with his teammates but also made sure to stress the importance of not letting down.

“We yelled out in the huddle, 'Next five minutes, next five minutes,' and I think we played well the next five or 10 minutes, but then we kind of dropped, and whether that was fatigue or being overconfident, we've got to correct that,” Berry said.

7. The Wright-Phillips factor

Wright-Phillips was the difference-maker in this game, scoring the final two goals to give New York the win, just its second in the Cup semifinals and first since 2003.

Koch said the Red Bulls forward showed the gap between FC Cincinnati and MLS.

“Big-time players step up in big-time moments,” Koch said. “He's a big-time player in MLS, and he showed it here tonight. … I think collectively we've gone on a very, very positive run, this Cup run. The group have gone out and won the games we've played but I think unfortunately for us tonight, give New York credit, they've obviously got some very, very talented players that stepped up as the game went along and allowed themselves to get back into it and ultimately won the game.”

Marsch called Wright-Phillips one of the most underrated players in MLS. He notched the game-winner in the 87th minute against the New England Revolution in the quarterfinals and has scored 88 goals in league play since the start of the 2014 season, which marked his first full season with New York.

8. See you soon

FC Cincinnati had already set the Cups’ non-finals attendance record with the 32,287 fans that attended the Round of 16 game against Chicago Fire SC on June 28, so when it was announced as a sellout less than 24 hours after tickets, it was obvious Tuesday would surpass that.

The new record of 33,250 is still short of the all-time Cup attendance record, which Seattle holds at 35,615 for the 2011 final, but it amounted to a timely electric atmosphere for the visit of MLS commissioner Don Garber, who was on site for the game.

Even Marsch said he hopes Garber was impressed and noted that he expects to be back in Cincinnati for more meaningful matches in the near future.

“The atmosphere was as good as I've seen anywhere, and right now the momentum in our sport is incredible, so I'm glad the people of our city have recognized that having a team here is really good, it's been fun, it's been entertaining, the sport is growing,” Marsch said. “I think Cincinnati would be a feather in the cap of MLS. There is talk about getting their own stadium, and if you can create any environment like that on a weekly basis, man you are going to have a good team. You are going to create an environment where players are going to want to come here and that's ultimately going to help you be successful. I really look forward to seeing the future of this club.”

Cincinnati’s largest all-time crowd was 35,061 tickets sold for the international friendly against Crystal Palace last July, but with a couple thousand seats removed to widen the pitch at Nippert, it is no longer possible to surpass that.

9. What’s next?

Though FC Cincinnati missed out on a chance to become just the second non-MLS club to win the Cup in the MLS era (the 1999 Rochester Rhinos are the only ones to win it), the season is far from over.

Cincinnati remains in a playoff hunt, sitting in seventh place in the USL Eastern Division heading into Saturday’s match at eighth-place New York Red Bulls II.

“Everyone is disappointed but it's been a fun run,” Berry said. “We gave it our best tonight. To give away the lead really sucks, but we've got a quick turnaround because we play New York again on Saturday. We're up there in the middle of a playoff run, so now our focus is on that.”

As for the MLS Red Bulls, they now head to the final at Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 20, looking for the club’s first Cup title and New York’s first championships outside of the two Supporters’ Shield win it claimed in 2013 and 2015.

“Ultimately teams are judged by championships, and that's something that's been barren with this club,” Marsch said. “For us to take a huge step and get to the final is a huge moment for us. The energy in the locker room right now and within our club is at an all-time high. I've got to remind everyone there is still more work to do, but the feeling right now is euphoria and we're going to use this to continue to galvanize our club.”

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