Lakota West and UC product Matt Bahner makes big impact for FC Cincinnati in his homecoming

CINCINNATI -- Matt Bahner joked that he needs to throw out the first pitch at Reds games every night before FC Cincinnati matches.

That was how the Lakota West High School graduate and former University of Cincinnati soccer player kicked off his “homecoming” weekend with FC Cincinnati. He called it a special way to begin what turned out to be a memorable 24 hours.

The Reds recognized FCC before their game Friday at Great American Ball Park leading into the second-year United Soccer League’s home opener Saturday at Nippert Stadium. As a Cincinnati native, Bahner -- one of the team’s new defenders this season -- had the pleasure of making the ceremonial first pitch.

FC Cincinnati's Matt Bahner is pulled back while trying to get to the ball during a match against St. Louis FC. (Phil DIdion/WCPO Contributor)

Fortunately, his performance Saturday was more on target than the high throw over home plate. Bahner had an assist on the first goal and helped the defense record a clean sheet in its best performance to date as FCC beat first-place St. Louis FC, 4-0, in front of a USL home opener record crowd of 23,144 fans.

“I think we need to set up me throwing out the first pitch every Friday,” Bahner said. “Maybe we can work that out. It's been unbelievable. I've had this date circled on my calendar ever since I came back, and the city of Cincinnati did not disappoint.”

FCC coach Alan Koch said Monday he hopes there are many more 24-hour periods like that for Bahner this season.

Perhaps another one is in store Wednesday as the orange and blue host the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a former North American Soccer League opponent of Bahner’s when he was with the Jacksonville Armada in 2015 and 2016.

“For him to be from this city and to go through what he went through, to throw out the first pitch (at the Reds game), I was excited for him and I think the whole team was. And then to come play here and put in the performance he put in, what an amazing 24 hours,” Koch said. “I hope that's not the only time he has a great 24 hours like that this year, but it was a very impressive start to the season.”

Happy to be home

Bahner signed with FC Cincinnati during the offseason after his contract with the Armada expired. He appeared in 46 games over the past two seasons in Jacksonville and had three goals.

The 27-year-old had played in the USL with Harrisburg City in 2013 and 2014 -- his first professional contract after graduating from UC in 2012. He never expected a return to the league would bring him to Cincinnati, a city he knew never had a successful history hosting professional soccer. When things didn’t work out for a return to Jacksonville, FCC immediately came to mind.

“The success of FC Cincinnati last year, being a hometown kid, certainly it was in the back of my mind,” Bahner said. “I never expected that I would still be back here. I never thought it might happen, but I started talking with the coaching staff and things progressed and it got to the point where it felt like a dream come true and an opportunity I couldn't pass up."

Bahner knew he would have to earn his spot as one of the few newcomers to FCC’s back line, which returned all of its starters from last year. At the beginning of the preseason he was the only non-returning player in the position group.

He said he was comfortable with the competition on a club with “so many great guys that can go in and out of the lineup,” and continues to work hard to prove what he is capable of.

Koch saw his abilities and has used him in the starting lineup for all four games so far at the right fullback spot, but Bahner even surpassed expectations Saturday. He was the catalyst to getting things going offensively, intercepting a pass and turning around a give-and-go with Kenney Walker down the right flank before sending a perfect cross to Djiby Fall for the first goal in the 34th minute.

Bahner finished with five interceptions and won five of six duels. His personal performance earned him recognition on the USL’s Team of the Week, announced Tuesday. Fall was the Player of the Week.

“It's funny because we were having a chat with our coaching staff the day before the game, and we said his service is good on crosses, but it needs to be better,” Koch said. “It's hard to say that now after he delivered a ball like that, but I think he can work on his consistency of his delivery.

“His fitness is very, very good. His mentality in terms of reading situations is very good. I think defensively, like all players, he can improve in that a little bit with individual 1 v 1 defending, but so far we are very pleased with his performance.”

Bahner said it was just a matter of time before things clicked for the defense. FCC had given up four goals through the first three games and wasn't as sound in the preseason as Koch would have liked, but Saturday’s performance was about as perfect as a defense can get.

St. Louis didn’t get a single shot on target.

“I think the combination of all the guys on the field Saturday and how we changed things up, a slight tweak here, and then the bigger field and add the environment, it was just the perfect storm for us I think,” Bahner said. 

Offensive-minded defender

Bahner is just as important to FCC’s offense as he is on defense.

He almost had a goal himself a few minutes before Fall’s first of four tallies, and Koch said that seemed to give Bahner the added confidence to keep moving forward into the attack and ultimately led to his assist.

Bahner’s ability to contribute on that end comes as no surprise to those who knew him growing up.

He played forward all throughout club and high school soccer, setting the Lakota West record for most assists in a game (four) and amassing 26 goals and 19 assists in four seasons on varsity. The three-time all-Greater Miami Conference selection and 2007 GMC Player of the Year then moved to outside midfield in college before Bearcats coach Hylton Dayes suggested a move to outside back in the transition to professional soccer.

Koch said Bahner’s offensive prowess is an asset to FC Cincinnati, as the staff expects all the fullbacks to move forward into the attack. The former Jacksonville player also could provide an added advantage Wednesday in his knowledge of Tampa, Koch noted.

The Rowdies (3-1-0) are coming off their first loss Saturday but still sit in fourth in the Eastern Conference, while FCC (2-2-0) moved from 13th to sixth with its home opener win.

“They are a great team,” Bahner said. “They have great players, starting off with Joe Cole. He's a name that's been at the top of the highest levels for quite a while now. With that, we are just going to have to play our game. Certainly we have a lot of confidence now after our game on Saturday, and I think it's going to be a great test -- two great teams going at it.”

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