CINCINNATI -- No matter what happens Saturday in FC Cincinnati’s regular-season finale at Toronto FC II, the Orange and Blue are assured a place in the United Soccer League playoffs for the second straight year.
But Alan Koch’s club still has plenty to play for, namely postseason positioning and a chance to punctuate the regular season with a win.
“We’re in!” Koch wrote on Twitter after the Tampa Bay Rowdies defeated Orlando City B in a 2-0 outing late Thursday, ensuring the mathematical certainty of FC Cincinnati finishing among the top eight playoff-bound teams in the USL Eastern Conference.
Dates, times and pairings for the playoffs will be determined after the regular season ends. FC Cincinnati is No. 8 in the USL standings for now but could move as high as sixth based on their result at Toronto and the outcomes of New York Red Bulls II and Bethlehem Steel FC matches this weekend.
FC Cincinnati also will start the playoffs on the road, as the top four teams per division host.
The last time the Orange and Blue saw Toronto FC II was in May, a 1-0 win for the home team at Nippert Stadium. The teams’ trajectories have diverged greatly since then, as Toronto enters Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. match with a 6-18-7 record and last place in the Eastern Conference.
That’s the recipe for FC Cincinnati to roll, right? Not so fast, Koch said.
“Playing Toronto at Toronto is by no means an easy feat. Louisville went there a few weeks ago and they’re first in our conference and they lost. So we know it’s going to be a difficult task but focus on what we’re good at,” Koch said. “We just told our guys…we can go anywhere and beat anyone in this league but we could also go somewhere and have some serious, serious challenges. We’ll focus on the positives and focus on what we’re capable of doing.”
FC Cincinnati (11-10-10) is coming off an alarming 4-0 loss at Ottawa FC, another club that was out of playoff contention. FC Cincinnati conceded three goals in the first 20 minutes and never recovered.
“I don’t think we showed up,” FC Cincinnati midfielder Kenney Walker said. “I think it was one of those days, and we’ve had a couple of them this year, where we’re not ready to play the game. That’s their last home game and we’ve got to know they’re coming out (energized).”
Koch called the defeat disheartening, disappointing and frustrating. Despite players’ intentions entering the match, he said FC Cincinnati “literally just laid an egg, where Ottawa came out and they were relaxed and felt confident. There was no extra pressure on them.”
Learning from that experience and playing with confidence could go a long way against Toronto. Walker said road environments are certainly challenging but a group effort and focus could solve that conundrum.
FC Cincinnati has taken its lumps on the road this season (3-8-4) but prevailed as recently as two matches ago at Charlotte. The Orange and Blue won 1-0 behind Kevin Schindler, who came off the bench to score his first goal.
There has been a greater sense of urgency in training this week as FC Cincinnati has shored up intensity for another pivotal outing. Seamless play on both sides of the ball could pay dividends for the team as it angles for three points Saturday night.
"We always speak to our players about 'embrace the pressure' because it's a privilege to have pressure. To be honest it was a privilege last weekend because the pressure was on us. Ottawa, they're out of the playoffs. So they really had nothing to play for. We're in a better position," Koch said. "We've got to embrace that and really go out and do what we can to put in a good performance."
Walker agreed. He said everyone has "got to show up and do our job."
"We harp on the little details and we went back to film as a group and every little detail wasn't…either it was a half-step off or too late, not taking care of the ball," Walker said. "We have to figure out how to make that not happen."