CINCINNATI - FC Cincinnati could have clinched a playoff berth with exactly one month left in its inaugural United Soccer League season, but it will have to wait a little longer.
The Orange and Blue weren’t able to hold onto an early lead Wednesday and settled for a 1-1 draw with the defending champion Rochester Rhinos in front of a crowd of 14,157 at Nippert Stadium.
Here are 9 takeaways from the game:
1. Lost opportunity
A win and anything but a Wilmington victory Wednesday would have punched FC Cincinnati’s ticket to the playoffs, so local sports fans might have actually found themselves rooting for a Pittsburgh team.
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds did their part in beating Wilmington, 4-1, but FC Cincinnati couldn’t do its own part.
FC Cincinnati went ahead, 1-0, in the 28th minute when Tyler Polak took the short corner from Corben Bone and found Austin Berry’s head at the far-post for the Cincinnati native’s third goal of the season.
However, a missed tackle just outside the box in the 42nd minute led to the equalizer for Steevan dos Santos, and that proved enough for the Rhinos to spoil the home team's celebration.
“When we go 1-nil up like that, it would be nice if we kept it 1-nil at the half, then we can reassess things at halftime,” FCC coach John Harkes said. “But at that point, we're 1-1 and we're battling.”
2. Still in the hunt
Despite the disappointing finish, FC Cincinnati (12-4-7, 43 points) still remains in third place and gained a point on second-place Louisville (13-4-8, 47 points), but New York Red Bulls II (16-3-5, 53 points) extended their lead in the Eastern Conference with a win over Toronto.
“At the end of the day, it's a battle,” Harkes said. “This point in the season, as a brand new club, how disappointed we are to get a point is a great sign of character. We have a great team, and I'm so proud of them and what they've been able to accomplish. We continue to build and we continue to get points.”
The competition among the No. 2 through 7 spots is tight with just nine points separating the top from the bottom of that group. FC Cincinnati is three points ahead of both the Richmond Kickers and Rhinos. The top four teams secure a home game for the first round of the playoffs, while the second-place team would also get a second-round game at home.
3. Forced break for Okoli
Only one field player had logged more minutes in league play than forward Sean Okoli heading into Wednesday night’s game, but after picking up his fifth yellow card in a draw at Richmond on Aug. 13, he was forced out of the lineup for the first time this season. Per league rules, five cautions result in a one-game suspension. The forced break at least leaves Okoli fresh for a big game at New York Red Bulls II on Sunday.
“If anything he's going to come back hungry, so that's one positive aspect,” Harkes said. “He's an important part of the team, and it will be nice to have him back on the field.”
In Okoli’s absence, FC Cincinnati went to a 3-5-2 with Omar Cummings and Andrew Wiedeman up top to start the game.
4. Almost healthy
The long breaks from action in August – with Wednesday's game being just FC Cinicnnati’s third of the month – have been good for the team’s health. Okoli was the only regular player unavailable Wednesday, until Omar Cummings went down with a knee injury late in the first half.
Kenney Walker, who came off the bench in the last outing, made his way back into the starting lineup for the first time since suffering a foot injury 13 minutes into the July 20 game against New York. Additionally, Paul Nicholson, who also has been nursing a hamstring injury since that game, started at center back, while Berry, who was pulled early from the match in Richmond, started at outside back.
Eric Stevenson, who has been limited by injuries this season, came in off the bench to replace Cummings, who will undergo an MRI on what seemed to be a hyperextended knee in a collision with Rhinos goalie Tomas Gomez.
“He's done everything he could to stay on the field, and it was a nasty collision,” Harkes said. “We just hope he's OK, and we hope to get him back as soon as possible. He's an important part of the team.”
5. One player’s debut
Midfielder Alvaro Anton Ripoll, a 22-year-old from Spain, made his FC Cincinnati debut Wednesday, entering late in the game to get his first taste of professional soccer in the States.
It took some time adjusting, but Ripoll earned his way into the 18-man game roster with his performance in training.
“One of the things he had to adapt to was culturally moving here and then the fitness aspect,” Harkes said. “He pulled up a series of injuries unfortunately, but he's at a pretty fit state right now, and he's been sharp in trailing, finishing and putting the ball in the back of the net.”
6. Field conversion successful
With August comes the start of football season (American football, that is) and, thus, the start of FC Cincinnati’s ground-share with the University of Cincinnati football team.
The operations teams of both organizations tested the field conversion process last week, which included a powerwash of the soccer lines, installation of the end zone panels and midfield logo and application of football field lines with washable paint. FC Cincinnati practiced with faded football lines before the field was changed back for soccer Aug. 18, and there was very little evidence a conversion had been made by the time fans arrived Wednesday.
There were three dark lines on the southern end of the pitch, but otherwise the field looked normal.
7. Limited chances
There was nothing surprising about the way Rochester came out in an otherwise non-traditional 5-4-1 formation. The Rhinos have been known to sit back, then catch opponents on the counter attack, which is exactly how they beat FC Cinicinnati 2-1 last time around.
The strategy worked well for the Rhinos, who held the home team to six shots while managing 12 of their own, including nine in the first half.
“They are a big, physical team that just wants to come in and kick you, and in the first half we were still finding our footing a little bit, and they knocked us a couple times,” Berry said. “We have to realize teams are going to come in and do that, they are not going to let us play. I don't think we had enough on goal, but we still had enough on the ball to create more chances and we still came out with a point, so we're just going to look to Sunday.”
Both teams had late chances for the go-ahead goal that never came, but FC Cincinnati’s closest one hit off the crossbar on an Andrew Wiedeman header. Rochester nearly scored on a scramble in front of the goal line, but FC Cincinnati keeper Mitch Hildebrandt got his hand on the ball and a penalty was called when a Rhinos player tried to kick the ball out of his grasp.
8. Shaking off the rust
To be fair, FC Cincinnati hadn’t played in 11 days, and it was just the team’s third game this month. The Rhinos, on the other hand, had a bit of an advantage already being in a rhythm. Rochester is unbeaten in 12 of its last 13 games, which included the 1-0 win over FCC in July.
“We've had a bit of a break,” Harkes said. “It's no excuse or anything, but at the same time, you find a little bit of a rhythm and we were up against the defending champions.”
FC Cincinnati plays two games in the seven days before returning home on Sept. 5.
9. Up to the challenge
FC Cincinnati should be plenty motivated when it heads to Red Bull Arena on Sunday and not just because New York leads the conference.
The last time the teams met, FC Cincinnati let go of a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes of play and lost 2-1 at home.
“We have a big game against New York,” Harkes said. “They won 1-nil against Toronto tonight, and they continue to push to the top, but we're excited to go and take on this challenge. We still stay in third and we can get a little closer, and we have games in hand, and we have to make it count.”
The game also takes Harkes back to his old stomping grounds. Harkes was born in Kearny, N.J., 2 miles from Red Bulls Arena in Harrison, N.J.
“I grew up playing five-side games right at the Harrison Courts, literally 200 yards from the stadium, so it brings back good memories of my childhood and creates that passion for the game and it will be nice to see some familiar faces,” Harke said.