CINCINNATI — FC Cincinnati’s late-game struggles have never hurt so much.
About 10 minutes from collecting three points on second-place New York Red Bulls II, FCC let the game slip away.
New York scored a pair of goals in a three-minute span and swiped away the points with a 2-1 win Wednesday in front of an announced crowd of 16,127 – a figure that gave FCC the United Soccer League’s all-time season attendance record, with 164,109 tickets sold through 10 home games.
“We're too good of a team to get our heads down low and let this affect us too much in a negative way,” FCC coach John Harkes said. “It's a loss. We've had losses before. It hurts and we have to deal with it. We'll be fine.”
Here’s a look at the top 9 takeaways from the loss:
1. Losing traction
Third-place FCC (10-4-4) was just four points behind New York in the USL Eastern Division table entering Wednesday’s game and missed out on a chance to gain ground on No. 1 Louisville City FC (12-1-6) as well.
New York (12-1-5) moves within one point of Louisville, while Cincinnati remains eight points back. Had FCC won, it would be one point out of second and just five points behind Louisville.
“It would be a growing worry if I was second or third from the bottom,” Harkes said. “It's part of the process. We're a brand new club. It's our first year, and we are going to learn lessons along the way. We're still competitive, and we're still atop the table, and we like to do it that way. We're looking forward to the playoffs.”
2. A more direct approach
With the Red Bulls bringing the league’s best defense to the pitch (allowing just 12 goals this season), Harkes said Tuesday that FCC would need to pressure them and really “get after them” to create chances in the attacking third.
That apparently meant a more direct approach early on, as FCC sent the ball forward most of the first half rather than stringing together passes and moving the ball around. However, that amounted to just five shots to New York’s eight.
Harkes has seen his team play that way before, but there is no doubt FCC is at its best when playing the possession game, something he addressed at halftime.
3. Halftime adjustments
FCC moved from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 in the second half, putting Omar Cummings wide right and sliding Eric Stevenson forward from the midfield to the 10 position.
It paid off when Jimmy McLaughlin curled a bullet past Kyle Renish in the 61st minute on a nice combination play that began with Sean Okoli. Okoli, in the middle of the box, sent the ball to Cummings on the right wing, and Cummings crossed it to the far side for McLaughlin to bury.
McLaughlin had missed a similar chance Saturday in a 2-0 loss to English Premier League’s Crystal Palace in an international friendly, but this time put it away for the first goal for a 1-0 lead that held until the 83rd minute.
“It was great to see our enthusiasm the second half, the way we came after them, got the first goal,” Harkes said. “It was a good goal for Jimmy -- very opportunistic. He had a chance like that against Palace and he was kicking himself. I told him, 'It's going to come again,' and he did extremely well to finish this one. I thought it was a great strike.”
4. Letting go
New York scored the equalizer on Justin Bilyeu’s free kick, which he sent past Mitch Hildebrandt in the 83rd minute, swinging it around the wall at the top of the box with an FCC deflection slightly altering its course.
“There was a lot of commotion,” said Hildebrandt, who finished with five saves. “To be honest, I should never be scored on there. It came around some guys, came through some traffic. He hit it well, to be fair to him, but that shouldn't happen.”
Three minutes later, Florian Valot headed in a cross from Derrick Etienne for the game-winner.
Harkes said it wasn’t a matter of New York “taking the game away and earning it,” as he was asked in the post-game press conference.
“At times, I thought we gave away some fouls in dangerous areas, and at times, they were very fortunate to get some of the plays they did, especially on top of the box,” Harkes said. “I thought Harry (Delbridge) made a clean tackle on the last one they gave away. But we've got to learn from it. … We take it. It's part of the game.”
5. High and low energy
A midweek game against the No. 2 team in the Eastern Division wasn’t ideal coming off the Palace match, even if FCC was able to rest and limit players’ minutes in the friendly against such a high-level team.
Harkes and several players said after training Tuesday they hoped the high intensity the team brought against Palace (holding them to two goals despite allowing one in the eighth minute of the 2-0 loss) would carry through and give the club some added confidence for this week.
Although the home side did come out with energy, it seemed to fade with the heat and chasing around that came with so many through balls. New York, meanwhile had much fresher legs with the depth that has come from being a No. 2 to a Major League Soccer side, which enables the club to move players up and down between the two teams.
6. No rest for the weary, still
There’s no break for FCC now. The Orange and Blue host the league’s top team as Louisville City comes to Nippert on Saturday afternoon (it’s a 4 p.m. kickoff) for the third matchup of the Dirty River Cup rivalry.
FCC lost 3-2 in the first matchup, then played Louisville to a scoreless draw last month. Though Wednesday’s loss hurt Cincinnati’s points total, a win Saturday would be huge.
“It’s a big week, but we don’t shy away from those challenges,” Harkes said. “You play against two quality teams that have done well in the season, and the main thing is to make sure our approach is right, the mentality is right. The talent and ability is no problem. It’s just the approach to the game.”
7. New record on the way?
FC Cincinnati sold 16,127 tickets to Wednesday’s game, recording its sixth best attendance for a home league game this season and giving the first-year the club the all-time season attendance record with five home matches left to play.
Not bad for the only home midweek match so far.
“It's incredible,” Harkes said. “The fan support is second to none. For me and the players, we deeply appreciate the way the city has reacted and the way they come out and support us. The colors are there. The fans don't give up on us, they push us through. For me, it's been a winning season already on and off the field.”
The club broke the league single-game attendance record last time it hosted Louisville City on April 16, with 20,497 fans attending the fourth game of the season. It then set the record at 23,375 against Pittsburgh on May 14, and another record could be coming if fans recognize the importance of Saturday’s game and show up in support.
Owner Carl Lindner wrote a letter of gratitude to fans earlier this week, encouraging big crowds to show up again – something he also did before the Pittsburgh game.
8. Berry back to full strength
Center back and captain Austin Berry made his first league start since April 24 at Toronto and played a solid 80 minutes. He had returned to the bench for the second matchup with Toronto FC II on June 18 and made his first appearance in the starting lineup Saturday in the international friendly against Crystal Palace, but the latter game was a trial to see how Berry would hold up.
Harkes said earlier this week that Palace – a match that had no bearing on standings – came at a perfect time to test out Berry’s legs. The Summit Country Day grad played 60 minutes in that game and came out unscathed.
“It's progressing, but it's a process,” Berry said. “We don't want to push it. You could probably tell I was a little winded out there, so it was probably a good decision to pull me off. We just have to go day-to-day and see how it reacts, if it's hurting or swelling up the next couple days we have to take a couple steps back but if I recover from it fine the next couple days, I can go. That's how it's been the last couple months.”
9. Lineup shifts
It’s tough to know how Berry’s return will impact the lineup for the long term. Two players who normally would have started were out because of injury or illness at the beginning of the game, and another key player went down early on Wednesday.
Midfielder Ross Tomaselli (ankle), who started the first 12 games before Eric Stevenson came back from injury, was not among the available 18 players, as Harkes planned to hold him out until Saturday. Defender Harrison Delbridge was reportedly ill but replaced Kenney Walker when he went down with a foot injury in the 12th minute.
Harkes said Walker’s injury came from his toe catching the turf and causing pain in his arch. He will be evaluated, and his status is unknown for Saturday.
Paul Nicholson, a natural holding midfielder, had filled in for Berry during his absence and performed well enough to remain in the mix. He played in the midfield against Palace, but Harkes said that was mostly so Corben Bone could rest up for this week.
Nicholson’s versatility gives the club some options. If Walker is unable to play Saturday, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the original back line to start the season and Nicholson at midfield with Tomaselli coming off the bench if healthy.
“At least we have options, which is good,” Harkes said. “I think we have a lot of versatile players that can play different positions, and Nico is one of them. I think it’s good for us.”
One thing is for sure: FCC has more depth than it once seemed to while playing the same lineup week to week.