CINCINNATI -- The unbeaten streak continues for FC Cincinnati – thanks to Jimmy McLaughlin’s game-winning goal in the 70th minute.
McLaughlin redirected Omar Cummings’ header into the back of the net off a set piece, and the defense held on for a 1-0 win Saturday against Bethlehem Steel FC in front of an announced crowd of 17,380 fans at Nippert Stadium.
The win extends FCC’s win streak to 11 games. Here’s a look at the Top 9 takeaways from the win.
1. Closing the gap
The biggest takeaway from the game? Three important points.
FCC (9-2-4) remains in the same third place position it has been sitting for about a month, but is now within one point of second place after New York Red Bulls II settled for a draw against Rochester Rhinos on Saturday. Cincinnati hosts New York on July 20 in its next home league game.
“We would have liked to have seen one or two goals in the first half, but overall, three points today is excellent,” FCC coach John Harkes said.
2. Right place, right time
McLaughlin has a knack for being in the right spot for seemingly easy goals.
Two of the three goals he scored in May (one being in the U.S. Open Cup) were off rebounds, where he simply had to tap the ball in, and his fourth goal of the season Saturday came right in front of the net. This one at least looked crafty. He pushed the ball across the line off the outside of his foot, finishing a header from Omar Cummings, who was trying to drive in Corben Bone’s corner kick.
“I don’t know if it’s intuitive or whatnot, but I try to put myself in good spots,” McLaughlin said. “The more you do it, the luckier you get. I happened to be in a good spot today and it just kind of fell right to me and it was a tap-in.
“I didn’t know where the ball was going, but I’ve always been taught to put it in the goal and never leave it, so I just redirected it a little and put it in the goal.”
3. Bethlehem limited combination plays
FC Cincinnati did have a few nice combination plays in Bethlehem’s defensive third, but not nearly as many as it seemed to find in its 2-1 win against the Steel on April 3.
“The imagination is there within our group,” Harkes said. “The difficult thing is when teams drop off and try to pack the space and you really sit. You have to be patient. I think we’re seeing a lot more maturity in our group.”
FCC finished with 14 shots, including eight on goal, as Samir Badr finished with seven saves for the Steel.
4. Opening things up
It wasn’t until the final 24 minutes, when Cummings came in and FCC moved from the 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, that things started to open up for the home side.
Cummings, a former University of Cincinnati standout, has been a spark off the bench since coming back from nagging injuries that sidelined him early in the season. He has now appeared in eight games.
“I thought they panicked a little bit and they dropped off and conceded more territory behind, and he’s got that pace to get after you,” Harkes said. “It’s great.”
5. Defense tightening up
The defense, which four times has allowed a goal in the 90th minute or beyond, preserved the 1-0 lead to post its fourth clean sheet of the season -- second in a row following last weekend’s scoreless draw at Louisville.
It was less than a month ago that FCC found itself in a similar position but surrendered a goal seconds before the final whistle and instead settled for a 1-1 draw with Harrisburg City.
“We’re developing a chemistry, developing a culture here,” goalie Mitch Hildebrandt said. “When things start clicking, it just goes from there. When we stop making little mistakes we were making earlier in the season, it’s a lot more comfortable for us and we can see games out.”
Hildebrandt needed just two saves, as eight of Bethlehem’s 10 shots were off target.
6. Patience in the midfield
With Bethlehem sitting back, FCC had to be careful not to push too many players forward, and thus, get caught down numbers in transition.
Harkes especially was pleased with the way the midfielders handled that and the decision-making of the defense.
“Even in the Euros, you see teams that are sitting and being very compact and they are looking to exploit spaces in behind and start pushing numbers forward,” Harkes said. “It takes a great deal of patience and focus and discipline from our players to not concede too much space on the transition.”
7. Getting some depth on defense
Center back and captain Austin Berry has missed the last 11 games (nine in league play) with a strained quad, but dressed for the first time since the April 16 match against Louisville City. The Cincinnati native did not play Saturday; however, getting back in uniform and among the 18 available players is the first visible sign of progress.
Berry, a graduate of Summit Country Day, had two goals in five games before the injury sidelined him. Veteran Paul Nicholson has been starting in his place.
“It’s another leader that’s in there talking, giving good information,” Harkes said of Berry working his way back.
When asked about what that means for the lineup, Harkes said, “There is always going to be competition for spots. It’s good, healthy.”
8. Look for more from offense
With FCC showing improvement on defense, that could open things up for the offense to try some new things. Harkes already favors an attacking, possession style, but Cincinnati has scored more than two goals in just one game all season.
Heading into the second half of the season, FCC certainly would like to see more comfortable cushions, especially early in the game. Eight of its 22 goals this season have come in the first half.
“The clean sheets from the defense do give us more confidence,” McLaughlin said.
9. Looking ahead
The next time FCC takes the field at Nippert Stadium, it will be hosting English Premier League club Crystal Palace on July 16. Cincinnati is hoping to reach 35,000 fans for the international friendly and already has topped 25,000 tickets sold. Its highest attendance was 23,375, which also is a league record.
Crystal Palace, based in South London, is making a stop in Cincinnati as part of a three-city North American tour. The Greater Cincinnati area has never hosted an English Premier League club.
FCC is on the road for two games this week, at the defending USL champion Rochester Rhinos on Wednesday and at St. Louis FC on July 9.