CINCINNATI — John Harkes may have been the happiest losing coach of all time.
It was minutes after Harkes’ Futbol Club Cincinnati team had been shut out by Crystal Palace 2-0, and Harkes could not stop smiling.
“Wow, what a day that was,” Harkes said. “Just a fantastic occasion really.”
It was another milestone for the Cincinnati’s newest sports phenomenon, FC Cincinnati. The match drew a sellout crowd of 35,061, the largest crowd ever for soccer in Ohio.
So the result was secondary. Crystal Palace is from the English Premier League, the best league in the world. FC Cincinnati isn’t yet a year old and playing in the United Soccer League, a third-tier U.S. league.
“The first thing I talked to our players about this week in training was the emphasis was not on how we’re going to win against Crystal Palace. It was more about how are we going to enjoy the moment.
“Can we get everybody on the pitch? That was really important from my perspective. From the big picture, you always want to get players to develop. The only way to develop and create opportunities for them to get into games and get minutes like this.”
Crystal Palace were impressed with the trip to Cincinnati. The team is doing a U.S. tour to get ready for the Premier season.
“The whole time we’ve been here we’ve been energized,” CPFC manager Alan Pardew said. “The enthusiasm for this club is unbelievable. Personally, I really hope we can come back here. If not next year, soon. I want to experience it again.”
“This team is only seven months old?” CPFC midfielder Andros Townsend said. “It’s incredible. We’d like to thank the fans for coming out to watch us play. I hope we put on a good show for them.”
FCC president Jeff Berding wasn’t surprised when the game with Crystal Palace sold out on Friday.
“I been surprised by some of the things that have happened throughout the year,” Berding said. “But I thought if we could bring an English Premier League team here, we could sell it out. We’re getting 17,000, 18,000, 20,000 for a USL game. We certainly thought if the weather cooperated, we’d have a great shot to sell the place out with a Premier League team.”
Good point. When you get 16,097 for Harrisburg City, one of the iconic names in soccer is going to draw a bit better. Crystal Palace is that. The team, which plays out of London, was founded in 1905 and finished second in the FA Cup finals last year.
FC Cincinnati has had an astonishingly good first year. FCC is in third place in the USL Eastern Conference and just had a 10-game unbeaten streak snapped. The city has bought in. FCC set USL attendance records twice this year, topping out at 23,3754 on May 14 vs. Pittsburgh.
Crystal Palace took a 1-0 lead at 7:45 with a goal from Jordan Mutch. He took the assist from Hiram Boating and drilled in the left side of the net from 30 yards out. FCC keeper Mitch Hildebrandt had no shot.
FCC had its chances from the start. Sean Okoli led a breakaway 4:20 in the game, and Jimmy McLaughlin had a shot on goal around the 9:20 mark. But the best chance came 43:30 into the half. Omar Cummings had a clean shot from the right side. It looked like it was going into until CPFC’ goalkeeper made a leaping save.
FCC very nearly tied it just into the second half. McLaughlin took a shot from about 20 feet. It was just high. Cincinnati controlled the early part of the half. Omar Mohamed, one of the substitutes, came close to scoring at 51:20 mark.
With two matches in the next seven days, FCC coach John Harkes used a lot of bench players in the second half.
Crystal added a goal at the 62:36 mark. Wilfred Zaha beat his man on the left side to get open right in front of the goal. Hildebrandt had no chance when Zaha pounded the ball to the back post.
It showed the skill of Premier League players.
“That was nice,” Pardew said. “You got to see the top quality of play, one-on-one, that you see in Premier League.”
Crystal Palace outshot FCC 15-12. CPFC needed five saves to keep the sheet clean.
“I thought the boys represented well and created chances,” Harkes said, “probably against two of the tougher center backs in the Premier League. From my perspective, we were unlucky not to score. It would have been nice to get a goal. . . If get a goal, we hear the roar of the crowd.”
Again, it was another good night for FCC. Berding had this in mind when he lined up Carl Lindner III to back the club.
“It’s humbling,” Berding said. “I had the vision we could have something special. With Carl Lindner and the ownership group, I felt like we had every resource available to be Cincinnati’s newest professional sports team.
“The bar’s pretty high with the Reds being the very first professional baseball team. The Bengals were founded by a Hall of Fame coach, one of the inventors of moderated football. But we felt like soccer was an ascending sport. I saw the data when I was with the Bengals, being the president of a youth club, I’ve been coaching my kids. You could see it.”
Pardew sees bigger things for FCC.
“If we can help push this team up a division, then so be it,” he said. “As it is right now, they’ve got the city where they want it. They’re playing good football.”
Other notes from Saturday’s game:
Saturday’s game was a “friendly.” What does that mean?
According to Wikipedia, a friendly is “an exhibition game (also known as a scrimmage, a demonstration, a preseason game, a warmup match, or a preparation match, depending at least in part on the sport) is a sporting event whose prize money and impact on the player's or the team's rankings is either zero or otherwise greatly reduced. In team sports, matches of this type are often used to help coaches and managers select players for the competitive matches of a league season or tournament.”
The play was not always friendly, however. Both teams were physical from the start.
FCC got a break as far as the weather.
It was considerably cooler than the previous few days. It was 81 at game time with relatively low humidity for Cincinnati.
They did wet down the turf about two hours before game time.
Crystal Palace plays in the English Premier League, arguably the best league in the world.
Palace made headlines by making a £31.5 million bid for Liverpool striker Christian Benteke, according to Daily Mirror in London. That’s $40.8 million.
Benteke was expected to join the CPFC, but he was not on the trip to the U.S.