CINCINNATI -- Earlier this season, FC Cincinnati forward Kadeem Dacres shrugged off the club’s rivalry with his former Louisville City FC squad as something that was more for the fans.
That was before the 1-1 draw on April 22 that featured more fouls than shots and ended in controversy.
Now, as FC Cincinnati prepares to host Louisville City FC for a third-round U.S. Open Cup game Wednesday at Nippert Stadium, the heat between the clubs is undeniable.
It is the first time they’ve met since the first of their three scheduled United Soccer League matches. That first match included 31 fouls, five yellow cards and a red card that led to the accusation that FCC forward Djiby Fall had bitten Louisville midfielder Niall McCabe in the cheek during an argument that followed his card. Fall was punished with a six-game suspension, of which he has one league game left to serve.
“The rivalry has definitely evolved a lot from last year, and it will definitely be an exciting game, so I’m looking forward to it,” said Dacres, who was on the other side of the rivalry last year but missed the first matchup as an FCC player because of his own red card. “Last year, it didn't feel like much of a rivalry, but this year, I would say 100 percent, it definitely feels like a rivalry now."
After FC Cincinnati won its U.S. Open Cup opener May 17 to set up the next round match with Louisville, it was clear the Orange and Blue were looking forward to a chance to take it to their rival in a “do-or-die” game.
When asked about the matchup in the post-game press conference following that 1-0 win over AFC Cleveland in the second round, FCC defender Harrison Delbridge would only say that he was “looking forward to it” but seemed to say more with his wide grin.
FCC coach Alan Koch could hardly contain his smile when answering a question about it in that press conference. Koch didn’t downplay the importance of Wednesday’s game when asked about the rivalry after practice Tuesday.
“After that (first Louisville) game, I think we're all definitely very well aware of the rivalry -- that goes for the players, members of the staff, our entire club, our fan base," Koch said. "It's the next round of the Cup, which is important, but the fact it's against Louisville makes it even more important."
Fall, who is eligible for non-league matches during his suspension, was business-like in his response to questions about facing Louisville City again. He said the opponent doesn’t matter, so long as he can play. However, FCC still had some fun on Twitter, posting a video clip of Fall waving along with a tweet saying “See you May 31st.”
Koch doesn’t doubt there will be added attention on Fall this match but hopes the U.S. Open Cup understands the need to assign a head official who can manage “all the little things that transpire” in matchups like this one.
The first-year FCC coach wouldn’t commit to whether Fall would be starting as he did the last Open Cup game, in which he picked up a yellow card.
“It's nice to have him back in the group and we're excited to have him in the group," Koch said. "We'll have to make sure we go out and focus on ourselves but also take care of ourselves too because Louisville is a group that will do anything it can to get you off your game.”
There appears to be no love lost on Louisville’s side either.
Louisville City coach James O’Connor has a history of complaints against FCC during the short time the two have been in the league together, especially when things haven’t gone his club’s way. He publicly complained about the alleged bite to the Louisville Courier-Journal before taking it to the league. Last year he criticized FCC for going forward with their July 23 match in hot conditions at Nippert Stadium, which ended in a 2-0 loss for Louisville.
FC Cincinnati forward/midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin said he doesn’t expect this game to be any more physical than previous matches against Louisville, but noted that emotions are probably running a little higher this time because of the controversy that ensued the last time.
“I think all the games we play in are chippy and there are a lot of emotions involved,” McLaughlin said.
“I think they are really amped up for the games against us as well, so it's kind of the nature of that type of match and how much both teams want to win it.”
McLaughlin said Louisville City is “definitely” FCC’s biggest rival.
No love lost here
FCC has the “Queen City Cup” rivalry with Charlotte, which it earned the trophy for last year, and Pittsburgh is another opponent that has been hyped up because of the rivalry between the cities in other sports, especially with the NFL’s Bengals and Steelers.
However, the “River City Cup” series with Louisville tops them all.
For one, Louisville is the closest opponent in proximity to Cincinnati, sitting just 105 miles away, which led to the creation of the “River City Cup” before FCC even played a game last year in its inaugural season. FCC won based on a one-goal differential last year, as the teams went 1-1-1 against each other with both winning on the opponent’s home pitch.
All four games with Louisville have been competitive and both clubs finished in the top three of the Eastern Division last year. Louisville is third and FCC fourth in the 2017 standings after this past weekend with each totaling 15 points and FCC behind only on goal differential.
“These cities have always had a rivalry,” said Tommy Gelehrter, who serves as the voice of the FC Cincinnati. “The (UC) Bearcats and the (Louisville) Cardinals have always been very heated rivals and had great battles over the years, and it's cool to see, 105 or 110 miles apart, these two teams now battle as they have.
“There's no question with the proximity of the two teams and the way these first four matches have gone, this has to be the top rivalry for FC Cincinnati and I don't see that changing unless FC Cincinnati ends up in MLS and it's not a three- or four-match series for the year.”
Aside from the proximity and competitiveness of the teams, they also share other similarities that make the rivalry unique.
Both are among the top supported clubs in the league and have passionate supporter groups following loyally. FCC set all of the USL attendance records last year while averaging 17,296 fans a game, and Louisville was third with its 7,218 fans per game, which was more than double the league average.
“It has to be one of the top rivalries in the league,” Gelehrter said. “Bethlehem and Pittsburgh have a bit of a rivalry. Portland and Seattle in Major League Soccer have a big rivalry, so I'm sure there is a rivalry with their '2' teams. Seattle and Vancouver in the USL have a bit of a rivalry. Orange County and L.A. are very close to each other, so that's one. I think there are some good rivalries, but this one has escalated to one of the top rivalries in the USL in a very short time.”
The fact Wednesday is an elimination game just adds to the dynamics of the rivalry. The loser is done for the tournament, while the winner gets a shot at Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew SC in the fourth round June 14.
It would be a home game for FCC but the venue is to be determined if Louisville City advances.
“That's huge because we're actually legit playing for something, whereas let's say in the league if you tie or lose a game, it might not be detrimental at the time,” Dacres said. “Now it's do or die so if you lose you're out of the competition. I feel like tomorrow’s game definitely has a huge meaning behind it.”