CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati’s sophomore season ranged from big wins to disappointing finishes, including Saturday’s campaign-ending loss to Tampa Bay in the United Soccer League playoffs.
Much of the Orange and Blue’s 12-10-10 regular season was played before a bigger backdrop because the franchise was lobbying for Major League Soccer consideration and the construction of a $200 million stadium.
FC Cincinnati’s future could be clarified in mid-December when the MLS announces two expansion teams.
As the club heads into the offseason and roster moves loom on the horizon, here’s a look back at nine memorable moments this season.
1.The coaching shake-up
This went down before the season -- two days before the first preseason friendly, to be exact. The team dismissed John Harkes on Feb. 17 and replaced him with Alan Koch. The former Vancouver Whitecaps 2 manager was pretty new to the franchise at that point. He had been hired two months earlier as an assistant coach and director of scouting and analytics, but by May the club had found its stride. After leading the Orange and Blue to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals, FC Cincinnati inked Koch to a multi-year contract extension.
2. Djiby’s four goals
Djiby Fall delivered the franchise’s first hat trick in an April win over St. Louis, and then did one better by scoring a fourth goal in the 4-0 victory. The home opener already had an electric atmosphere with more than 23,000 sold tickets. It was a career performance. Djiby had never scored four goals in one outing before. The infusion of offense was crucial for a team that had scored just two goals combined in three matches prior to St. Louis.
3. Welcome to Cincinnati, Danni Konig
When the league suspended Djiby for six games, the Orange and Blue made a strategic change to bolster the team’s offensive options. FC Cincinnati traded Andy Craven to OKC Energy FC for Danish forward Konig, a 2015 USL MVP finalist. Konig struggled with production in 2016 but thrived after the May trade. He finished with 11 goals, one behind team leader Djiby. His penalty kick goal in the final minute of stoppage time against St. Louis allowed FC Cincinnati to escape with a tie in a pivotal late-season road match.
4. The Columbus Crew
The inaugural meeting between FC Cincinnati and its MLS brethren, the Columbus Crew, was a victory for USL teams everywhere. Djiby’s goal and Mitch Hildebrand’s five saves helped the Orange and Blue to a 1-0 victory in the U.S. Open Cup match at Nippert Stadium. Not only was it a stunning victory for Koch and company, but it ensured FC Cincinnati’s advancement to the Open Cup’s Round of 16. More than 30,000 people flocked to Nippert to see the home team unseat the Crew in a proverbial David and Goliath match.
5. Mitch says no to Chicago Fire
The “Mitch Says No” chant was no more crucial than in FC Cincinnati’s U.S. Open victory over the Chicago Fire. The Orange and Blue beat a second MLS side (3-1 on penalty kicks) behind Hildebrandt’s inspired performance in goal. The 2016 USL Goalkeeper of the Year thwarted three attempts, including the decisive shot that sealed FC Cincinnati’s win. The victory ushered in sheer pandemonium at Nippert, where 32,287 fans celebrated another milestone victory and a punched ticket to the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. They weren’t the only ones who witnessed the win: ESPN televised the match as well. The outing helped put FC Cincinnati on the map among casual viewers and conceivably improved its chances for MLS consideration.
6. Reaching the Final Four
FC Cincinnati became the first lower-division club to advance to the U.S. Open Cup’s final four with a 1-0 victory over North American Soccer League side Miami FC on the road in August. The match was originally slated for July 12 but inclement weather led to its postponement. The wait was worth for the Orange and Blue, which prevailed on a Djiby goal courtesy of a Justin Hoyte assist. FC Cincinnati returned home for its U.S. Open Cup semifinal -- and another MLS foe in the New York Red Bulls -- but the home team squandered a two goal lead in a 3-2 loss. When all was said and done, the Cup run proved FC Cincinnati was a viable opponent on the soccer landscape, regardless of level.
7. A nod to the glue guy: Kenney Walker
This midfielder played for the LA Galaxy for four years and was one of FC Cincinnati’s inaugural roster members. He started the season with a sprained right meniscus but finished with a team-best seven assists. Walker was named USL player of the week in September after tallying his season-first goal and two assists in the Orange and Blue’s 4-2 victory over the Red Bulls II. Walker, Koch said, could be USL player of the week every week because of the way he impacts play. FC Cincinnati was a better team when Walker was on the pitch.
8. Surviving the pressure cooker down the stretch
For a club that had not played particularly well on the road all season, a four-match road stretch to end the regular season figured to be a detriment to its playoff positioning. For a long time the Orange and Blue lingered around the No. 8 threshold in the Eastern Conference standings -- a significant perch, as only the top eight teams per division make the USL playoffs. Aside from a 4-0 clunker at the Ottawa Fury, FC Cincinnati did well down the stretch. The team went 2-1-1 and capped the regular-season with a 4-3 win over Toronto FC II. The victory helped vault FC Cincinnati into sixth place in the league standings and ensure a playoff date with Tampa Bay. The Rowdies won that quarterfinal, 3-0, ending Cincinnati’s season.
9. Fans arrive in droves
FC Cincinnati has not only retained the fans it accumulated in 2016 but expanded its following. In fact, the club drew a USL single-game record crowd of 30,417 in its home finale against New York Red Bulls II. That figure eclipsed FC Cincinnati’s prior record of 25,308 fans against Orlando City B on Aug. 5 and its 2016 playoff attendance (30,187) against the Charleston Battery. In all, 339,181 fans attended the Orange and Blue’s home matches in 2017, an uptick of nearly 80,000 from the prior year. What does it all mean? Quite simply, there’s a glut of soccer support in this city regardless of other professional and college teams.
Shannon Russell is a freelance sports analyst and columnist for WCPO.com. Follow her on Twitter at @slrussell.