CINCINNATI — Kendall Waston still gets butterflies thinking about the first goal he scored for FC Cincinnati one year ago this week. His header in the 2019 home opener made history as the club’s first goal in Major League Soccer at Nippert Stadium.
Now, Waston and FC Cincinnati hope to create more memorable moments as they open their home schedule Saturday against D.C. United, kicking off the club’s final season at Nippert Stadium.
FC Cincinnati, which has played the past four seasons on the University of Cincinnati campus, will open its new stadium in the West End next year.
“I feel butterflies in my stomach (thinking about it) because it was a great memory, is a great memory,” Waston said. “I want to repeat it in the way that we want to win. We want to give the fans what they deserve and what they deserve is a win.”
FC Cincinnati averaged 27,336 fans per game through a challenging 6-22-6 inaugural MLS season. The team played its home opener last year, a 3-0 win against Portland, in front of a sellout crowd of 32,500 fans.
Plenty of seats remain available for Saturday’s match amid a slow start for the Orange and Blue, who are looking for their first points this season despite a promising roster rebuild this winter. They fell 3-2 in the season opener at New York Red Bulls and 2-1 at Atlanta United last weekend.
Coronavirus concerns could impact the crowd Saturday, though MLS was moving forward with games as planned as of Tuesday, electing only to close locker rooms to prevent players from close interactions with media. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine encouraged indoor events to be closed to the public but did not discourage fans from attending outdoor sporting events.
Waston hopes a big home crowd will provide the boost FC Cincinnati needs to get a positive result.
“I think they (the fans) are our No. 12 player in the field because when they are pumped, when they are jumping and shouting, that gives us a lot of motivation and make us run a little bit more,” he said. “So, we are just excited to hear them and start hopefully to give them some joy as well.”
FC Cincinnati struggled in the first half at New York but made adjustments and looked better in the second half with goals from Allan Cruz and Jurgen Locadia. Interim coach Yoann Damet then moved Frankie Amaya to more of a holding midfielder role at Atlanta last weekend to help close the gap between the attack and back line, and although that helped, the squad still fell short.
Damet said he was encouraged by the progress he has seen with the defensive organization and created chances on offense, and there is plenty to build on this week. Adding the home crowd should be another positive.
“I've said this many, many times -- I think the fans, feeling their support and having them behind us is a big component when you play a game, and being able to play at home and have that support is going to for sure make a difference for the team,” he said.
The much-anticipated arrival of center attacking midfielder Siem De Jong, who FC Cincinnati acquired from Dutch Eredivisie side Ajax on Feb. 20, should provide another boost. De Jong returned to the Netherlands after signing to complete his visa paperwork and came back to Cincinnati for his first practice with his new club Tuesday.
The veteran attacker is expected to be available for selection Saturday, despite not having played a game in about a month, and likely will replace Amaya in the lineup if given the nod to start. He had been training with Young Ajax while in his home country.
“It was a bit weird because I was already part of the team, but I couldn't be here,” De Jong said. “I hadn't met anybody yet of the team, so for me, I didn't really know the guys. I just knew a few players. But yeah, I was watching, of course, and seeing how everything's evolving. And, well, hopefully I can fit in quite fast and then help the team as much as I can.”
Damet is just glad to have his full roster available finally. Locadia arrived just before the season opener after also having to return to his home country to complete visa paperwork at the end of the preseason, and he came off the bench to make an impact in the final 25 minutes. Adrien Regattin was nursing a hamstring problem last week and also came off the bench at Atlanta, assisting Yuya Kubo’s goal from a distance three minutes after entering for Joe Gyau.
De Jong can only add to the offensive output. FC Cincinnati has three goals in two games after finishing with 31 in 34 matches last year, but the Orange and Blue haven’t led yet this season. Waston said the defense could use an early advantage from the offense, like last year when he put the team on the board in the 15th minute of the home opener.
FC Cincinnati’s best games last year were “firsts” at home. The Orange and Blue won the home opener, and they won Damet’s first game in charge last May. A magical U.S. Open Cup run in 2017, when the USL club beat MLS sides Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire as underdogs, will always be remembered as the biggest games played at Nippert, along with an incredible win streak in 2018 as the Orange and Blue stormed to the USL regular-season title.
“Nippert is a special place,” said midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin, who has been with the team since its first season in USL in 2016. “I look forward to a chance to walk into the stadium and hear that crowd again. There’s nothing else like it.”