FC Cincinnati draws tens of thousands to watch 1-0 victory over Columbus
Laurel Pfahler | WCPO contributor
9:31 PM, Jun 14, 2017
5:52 AM, Jun 15, 2017
CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati's dress rehearsal for a potential future in Major League Soccer couldn't have gone any better.
The second-year United Soccer League club upset MLS side Columbus Crew SC 1-0 Wednesday in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup and the first ever "Ohio Derby."
The stunning victory, propelled by Djiby Fall's looping header goal in the 65th minute, came in front of an electric crowd of 30,160 fans for a modern era, non-finals Cup attendance record that far surpassed expectations for a midweek, non-league game.
"It's a big result for us as a club, obviously," FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. "It's a big result for us as a city. To play against an MLS club, there are USL teams that play against MLS teams in the Cup, and there are occasional upsets like there was tonight, but they don't happen very often. A lot of times the team that comes from the higher league will walk away (winners), but it is a very special moment. I think I would be amiss to say it's just another victory. It's a huge victory for a club that has huge aspirations."
Here are the top 9 takeaways from the game:
1. Win for the organization, regardless
The match was a win for FC Cincinnati before the opening whistle even sounded.
The club announced earlier in the day it had surpassed 25,000 tickets sold and the banners in the upper deck of Nippert were pushed up to leave the bottom half of those sections open for seating. Two of those banners were completely removed. Some chose to stand, rather than climbing to the upper deck. All for a midweek match.
The total attendance of 30,160 -- and keep in mind the game was not part of season ticket packages -- smashed the U.S. Open Cup fourth-round record of 19,298, which was set in 2015 in a game between MLS side Sporting Kansas City and the USL's Saint Louis FC. It also marks FC Cincinnati's second-highest attended non-friendly match, trailing only the 30,187 figure drawn for the USL playoff loss to Charleston Battery last October.
The largest known U.S. Open Cup attendance was 35,615 drawn in the 2011 final in Seattle (Sounders vs. Fire).
"(It was) pretty special," FC Cincinnati president Jeff Berding said. "I told the team, 'In all of our wildest dreams as we started this wonderful club in this wonderful sports town, we wouldn't have dreamed as big as a night like tonight.' People that have watched me over the past few years, I think you have a sense I do dream big, but I wouldn't have dreamed tonight. Incredibly special. I'm speechless really. It's a statement for Cincinnati beyond just FC Cincinnati and our club. What happened out there tonight and the crowd and the environment and the energy, that's a big league soccer experience right there.
"It's like the NCAA tournament when the 16 seed plays the 1 seed," he added. "You're going to compete, but the expectations, there's no pressure, and I knew the environment would be a big statement, but the environment and the crowd was far beyond 30,000."
2. Taking in the scene, beyond the numbers
Two sections were opened up for Columbus Crew fans -- the two closest ones to The Bailey in the northeastern corner of the stadium -- but black and gold colors dotted the otherwise Orange and Blue crowd.
The two clubs supporters groups even had dueling smoke canisters, and the stadium was abuzz the entire game.
"This is what makes soccer special, and it's great to give Americans a taste of a real Cup atmosphere, and that's where this was," Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. "Our fans were great, their fans were great and it made for an electric atmosphere."
Several families had split loyalty displayed in their attire, and some individuals even were mis-matched in their own gear in an attempt to show support for the local club and the MLS side they've likely followed since before FC Cincinnati came into existence.
Eventually these shared loyalties might need to be settled, as FC Cincinnati could be one finalized stadium plan away from a Major League Soccer bid.
3. What it means
The match was arguably the biggest in FC Cincinnati's short history, so the win is meaningful no matter how you look at it.
Though there is no trophy associated with winning a fourth-round Cup game or the first "Ohio Derby" between two teams that might not play again for some time, both clubs played to win and the underdog happened to get it.
"They were expected to win in a lot of eyes, but I think it goes to show what kind of team we are and what we're capable of," FC Cincinnati defender Tyler Polak said.
FC Cincinnati failed to advance out of the third round last year when it also have gotten the chance to play Columbus at this stage.
Since first joining Open Cup competition in 1998, Columbus Crew SC had lost in the fourth round only once before -- to the Dayton Dutch Lions USL-Pro club in 2012. They were 7-2 against USL clubs in the tournament with the other loss coming to Richmond in the Round of 16 in 2011.
"We're more disappointed because it's an in-state rivalry, an in-state game," Berhalter said. "We play in the higher league. We should come here and win the game."
4. Both clubs all in
Many MLS teams use a lineup full of reserves in the early rounds of the Cup, especially in the fourth round entry point for the top tier. That wasn't the case for the Crew in this match.
Midfielders Federico Higuain, Justin Meram and Wil Trapp and defender Nicolai Naess had all started 14 games or more, and all but two of the Crew starters Wednesday night have played 400 minutes or more in 16 league games. Goalkeeper Brad Stuver filled in for starter Zack Steffen, who has played every minute of the MLS season.
"Of course we took this seriously," Berhalter said. "It's a big game. There are 30,000 people that came to see the game, so we put quality players on the field."
It had seemed the Crew was going to be taking the match seriously, based on early reports from the Columbus Dispatch, but the lineup was a bit more star-studded than most probably expected.
Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati -- which made it clear it was "all-in" long before game day -- rested a couple players, such as midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin and defender Justin Hoyte, but did not have any surprising starters.
Koch wasn't surprised the Crew played so many regular starters.
"It's Cincinnati-Columbus, and people can build it down and say it's the first game so how do you have a rivalry," Koch said. "Of course we have a rivalry. It's professional soccer, and when you get to play against teams this close geographically, it's very important for the clubs that play, it's important for our fans, and it's important for both our cities."
5. The Djiby-Konig tandem
If there was a surprise in FC Cincinnati's lineup it was that Koch did treat fans to the opportunity to see Djiby Fall and Danni Konig together for the first time.
FC Cincinnati broke out a 3-5-2, straying from the 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-3 formations normally used, to get both leading scorers in up top, and the combination clearly is a work in progress. Konig and Fall appeared a bit uncomfortable working together and a couple times seemed to get in each other's way, something not all too unexpected given both are used to receiving feeds in the center and don't typically have to do a lot of passing.
However, both were involved in the game-winning goal.
6. Getting on the board
Fall sent the crowd into total pandemonium with his header goal in the 65th minute.
Konig ran onto a ball in the corner, passed it back to Justin Hoyte, who had just entered for Matt Bahner six minutes prior, and Hoyte sent in the cross. Fall initially headed the ball to himself, watched intently as it floated in the air, and then won the challenge with Hector Jimenez for the second header, which he looped into the upper right corner of the goal.
"It was a good cross from Justin and I fought for the ball, and I was just happy to get another chance at it," Fall said. "I'm very happy."
The goal was Fall's third in three Open Cup games.
7. Crew dominated, still lost
For most of the game, the Crew dominated, but sometimes the team that plays the best doesn't get the win, and that was the case Wednesday.
Columbus outshot FC Cincinnati 19-5 (11-3 in the first half) and had possession 59.6 percent of the time, including 65.4 percent in the second half. Cincinnati had a few exciting chances, but the Crew had far more -- especially late in the game.
"From the start of the game, I think we lacked urgency," Berhalter said. "I think that lack of urgency resulted in way too slow ball movement. We had some good position, but it wasn't good enough. I think speed was going to be the key to hurting them, so in the second half, we were able to do that, get around the edges and create some chances. We had opportunities. We got in good position and the quality to finish them off wasn't there."
8. Compact defense
Mitch Hildebrandt and the FC Cincinnati defense denied the Crew of that elusive equalizer thanks to a compact approach in the box.
Despite playing a 3-5-2 formation unfamiliar to the club, FC Cincinnati played out its game plan to near perfection to keep the Crew, which is usually capable of getting a score, off the board. Austin Berry, Paul Nicholson and Harrison Delbridge -- all capable center backs -- made up the three-man back line, while regular outside defenders Tyler Polak and Bahner (or Hoyte) played more of wingback role, running up field into the attack and tracking back onto defense throughout the game.
"Just staying compact (was the key)," Polak said. "It's a big field. We obviously widened it. They are good players that get behind, so I think with three players in the back and Bahner and me kind of tracking back, I think it was important to stay compact and make them play long balls in the box where we had bigger guys and we executed perfectly."
Hildebrandt finished with five saves.
9. What's next?
In terms of the Cup, FC Cincinnati won't know its next opponent until Thursday's Round of 16 draw, but we do know the match would be June 28.
Koch said with the extra games being added into his club's schedule because of the deep run in the Cup, fatigue is a consideration; however, he will rest guys as needed and continue to rotate the lineup as best he can while still putting out the best group of players possible for league games.
FC Cincinnati hosts Eastern Division leader Charleston Battery on Saturday in its return to USL play, an important match to gain some ground in the standings, as the Orange and Blue currently hover at the bottom of the playoff picture. FC Cincinnati has never beaten the Battery.