CINCINNATI -- Djiby Fall, of all people, was the difference-maker in FC Cincinnati's third-round U.S. Open Cup win over United Soccer League foe Louisville City FC on Wednesday.
In his first match against Louisville since the rival club got him suspended for six league games, Fall took on much of the attention but apparently not enough from the opposing defenders.
The veteran center forward scored on a rebound in the box in the 48th minute to give FCC a 1-0 win in front of 6,519 fans at Nippert Stadium. FCC advances to face Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew in the fourth round June 14.
"I'm ecstatic for him," FCC coach Alan Koch said. "It's kind of ironic, isn't it? But I'm very happy for him. I'm very happy for our group. This game is very unique. You ride the waves at times and strange things happen, but for us to come through tonight, we're very happy to get the result."
Here are the top 9 takeaways from the match:
1. Going for it
FC Cincinnati played arguably one of its strongest lineups of the season. The only changes from the past three league games were the insertions of Fall in place of Danni Konig, Justin Hoyte in for Tyler Polak and Andrew Wiedeman replacing Daryl Fordyce.
Fall is the team's leading scorer despite missing the last five league games because of a suspension that stemmed from the April 22 match against Louisville City. During that game, he drew a red card and then was punished an additional five games for allegedly biting an opposing player. Konig has started in his place at center forward during the suspension from league games, but Fall is eligible for non-league play, and FCC has taken advantage.
Wiedeman has been relegated to the bench since Konig arrived via trade on May 10, but was a full-time starter last year, and Hoyte had taken Polak's spot in his FCC debut April 9 but just returned to the available 18 on Saturday.
"It's a Cup game, we're playing at home, we're obviously playing a local rival," Koch said when asked about the all-in approach. "They went all in too. It's pretty obvious both groups had the same focus, which more often than not in this game, two clubs are going to try to go out -- particularly in a derby type game -- and try to get a positive result. They went for it, we went for it and obviously we got the result in the end."
Midfielder Kenney Walker should be back in the starting lineup soon as he made his way to the reserve list Wednesday after sitting out four games with an injury.
2. Eyes on Djiby
After the altercation between Fall and Niall McCabe at the last meeting resulted in the alleged bite charge, the head official seemed ready to pounce on Fall before anything had a chance to escalate this time.
By the 18th minute, Fall had received a warning. He was booked with his second yellow card of the tournament in the 38th minute.
Shortly before stoppage time going into the half, Fall almost mistakenly was charged with a foul on defender Tarek Morad when Louisville goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh collided with his own player and took him down while making a play on a free kick. The replay clearly showed Fall was behind the play.
Fall finished with five fouls and took several hits himself. In the Open Cup, a player can accumulate three yellow cards before being suspended for one game of the tournament.
"I was happy with the officials," Koch said. "I think it was a very difficult game for the officials to manage tonight. I certainly don't think they got every call right, but it's unrealistic to expect the officials to get everything right. We all know what's happened with Djiby and them, and they were obviously trying to do something to agitate him and to get the ref to react a certain way. I have a lot of respect for the referee coming into an environment like that and managing it."
3. Reason to celebrate
Fall put FCC ahead in the 48th minute, pouncing on a loose ball in front of the goal after Ranjitsingh saved an initial shot on Aodhan Quinn's corner kick. He did more than a little celebrating after driving home the goal -- his eighth in eight games this season -- but later in the post-game press conference wrote the goal off as being part of his job and no more rewarding than any other one he has scored.
The Senegal native also scored the game-winner in the second-round Cup game against AFC Cleveland and had six goals in league play before his suspension.
"I feel happy," Fall said. "It was an important game for us, for the city, for our fans, and I think we did a great job tonight."
Fall left the game in the 71st minute, waving to the crowd and soaking up the applause before receiving a big hug from Koch. Konig replaced him.
4. Competitive battle
FCC won the "River Cities Cup" trophy over Louisville City by a one-goal differential last year after the teams went 1-1-1 against each other, and the chippy battle last time -- followed by the bite complaint that FCC disputed -- only fueled the intensity.
This match was just as competitive as ever, as the teams nearly split possession time in half and were almost equal in shots with 13 combined. They both were charged with three yellow cards, but Cincinnati had 15 fouls to Louisville's seven.
"I think everyone felt (the intensity), their fans and our fans," goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt said. "It's a local derby, and I don't think there's many like it in the league and in the MLS. The U.S. is so spread out that when you get a team that can just drive up here the day of, play in a professional atmosphere and play a game like we can with Louisville is a special thing in this country. Both teams went at it, and I give credit to every single guy on the pitch because man, they fought hard. Everybody, back to front, defended well, and we attacked as a group. For a full 90 minutes, everyone worked their butts off."
5. Coaches controversy
The fire was felt even after the game when video surfaced on social media showing a bit of a heated exchange between Koch and the Louisville City coaching staff during the traditional handshake portion of the postgame routine.
Koch said he and Louisville head coach James O'Connor shook hands but an assistant initially refused. The video seems to show O'Connor and Koch exchanging words, then O'Connor trying to continue the discussion as Koch walked away.
"We shook hands, that was it," Koch said of the interaction with O'Connor. "Moments in the game were moments in the game, and I think everyone should respect the game. We shook each other's hands after the game. The assistant coach didn't want to shake my hand, but he eventually did, so everything is fine. We're all squared. It's part of the game. We respect the game and how the game was managed tonight. We got out of the game and move forward with the result."
6. Defense improving, club progressing
The result didn't come easy, but Hildebrandt preserved the shutout with three saves for his fourth clean sheet of the season and second in a row with plenty of help from the back line of Austin Berry, Harrison Delbridge, Matt Bahner and the combination of Hoyte and Polak.
"Harry and Austin are taking a beating back there, but they are monsters winning every ball and covering for each other. The work that Matt and Tyler and Justin today do -- those guys get up and down the field, help us attack and get back and defend," Hildebrandt said. "They deserve a lot of credit for what's going on right now for sure."
Overall, Koch is pleased with the progress of the team, which has now won four straight games following a rough stretch where FCC went 0-2-3.
"We're excited to go 4-0," Koch said. "I wouldn't say Mitch is cruising. He's done a fantastic job but obviously has improved. You're going to have difficult moments, and tonight we had a lot of difficult moments. That was a very delicate chess match that went on throughout the course of the 90 minutes. I think thankfully, we as a group managed the moments very well and we obviously capitalized on the one chance we got. I think we'll take a lot of confidence as a group by getting another clean sheet, which is great. We're obviously proud of Mitch, proud of the back four and the collective group for going out there and making sure we get the clean sheet and move forward."
7. The big reward
There are no league points awarded with this win, but FCC gets the coveted home match against the Crew in the fourth round June 14.
The "I-71 Derby," as some are calling it, is a potential preview of a future MLS rivalry, should FCC be granted one of the four remaining expansion bids it applied for in January. Soccer Stadium Digest this week put odds on all 12 contenders and put FCC at 2-1 odds to get into MLS.
"It's huge," Koch said. "Everybody knows where our club would like to go. We're obviously still a young club, and we're still going through teething challenges in our second year, and I'm sure that will continue for any new club. It takes a long time for any new club, but I think it's pretty obvious where we want to go as an organization. To get to play against a club like the Crew, that have a coaching staff and players we respect, it's going to be a very special game. I think it's beautiful for Cincinnati to get to play against Columbus. It will be a special night for our fans and their fans, too. Things like that don't happen very often. It's luck of the draw, literally, that we get to play against them."
8. Low attendance
It's not surprising that a midweek, non-league game that wasn't included with season-ticket packages drew the lowest attendance to date, but the total number of tickets sold was disappointingly low considering the rivalry between the teams and all that transpired the last meeting.
In the club's first Open Cup game May 17, FC Cincinnati drew a paid attendance of 12,790, which was 4,122 more fans than it did for its second-round match at home last year. However, that included season-ticket holders who might not have attended. FCC has upwards of 11,500 season ticket holders this year, up from about 6,000 last year.
9. Up next
Before the next round of the Cup, FCC resumes focus on league play. The Orange and Blue travel to Rochester on Saturday for their first road game since May 6 at Richmond, which was followed by five straight at home.
FCC went 0-1-1 against Rochester last year, losing 2-1 in New York. Rochester sits in ninth in the Eastern Division with 12 points at 3-1-3, while FCC is fourth with 15 points at 4-4-3.
Cincinnati returns to Nippert on June 10 against Charlotte, which should be Fall's first league game back from suspension.