CINCINNATI - Jeff Berding wanted Saturday’s international friendly with Spanish La Liga’s RCD Espanyol to “feel like a carnival.”
In many ways it did, but FC Cincinnati came off the field disappointed in the game’s result as Los Periquitos rallied from behind to collect a 3-2 win in front of a crowd of 16,135 at Nippert Stadium.
Leading the United Soccer League in points 21 games into the season, the Orange and Blue were in top form and up to the challenge of facing an opponent from one of the top leagues in the world. Espanyol is preparing for the 2018-19 La Liga season under new manager Rubi, and FC Cincinnati needed just five minutes to take the first lead.
“We wanted to get something out of the game tonight,” coach Alan Koch said. “With the way we played through the course of 90 minutes, we maybe could have. They are obviously at a high level ... but we're such a competitive group and our group is used to winning, and I think that's our mentality. It doesn't matter who we play, we want to win.”
Despite the result, it was a positive experience for all parties.
— FC Cincinnati (@fccincinnati) July 29, 201
On a night that connected two teams from different parts of the globe, fans were treated to some entertaining soccer, a halftime celebration of Cincinnati’s rise to Major League Soccer and a chance to mingle with the players on the field following the match.
FC Cincinnati had never scored in an international friendly, losing 2-0 to both Crystal Palace in 2016 and Valencia CF last year, but it didn’t take long to end that drought.
Russell Cicerone ran on to a ball from Emery Welshman in the fifth minute after Will Seymore intercepted a pass in Espanyol’s defensive third, and Cicerone buried the shot from 12 yards out.
“Will [Seymore] did a lot of work in the midfield,” Cicerone said. “He found Emery [Welshman] in space and then Emery put it on a platter for me and all I had to do was slide it past the goalie. It was those two that did all the work. … Once I saw it hit the back of the net, I was overcome with joy.”
Los Periquitos evened the score in the 31st minute when Victor Sanchez managed a 1-on-1 with goalkeeper Spencer Richey and juked him for an empty-netter. Espanyol took its first lead in the 69th minute on an unassisted goal from Sergio Garcia, who put a shot past third-string keeper Mark Village.
FC Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma tied the game in the 76th minute on a curving blast to the far post from the corner of the 18-yard box. Three minutes later, Los Periquitos got the game-winner from Sergi Darder.
“We had one mistake at the beginning, of course, but in general I think we had a good first half because we had no other problems defending, good passes with plays,” Rubi said. “Second half was more crazy of the match maybe but more beautiful for everybody.”
The back-and-forth play added to the “carnival” feel of the night, but so did the halftime celebration of FC Cincinnati’s expansion bid to join MLS.
During an extended intermission, club president and general manager Berding and team owner Carl Lindner III led a presentation to thank fans for their support, to acknowledge many of the club’s achievements and to fire up the city about the club’s first-place standing in the USL Eastern Conference.
The celebration, which featured kids holding scarves to represent each MLS franchise, began with a video presentation that the club made in front of the expansion committee back in December. Berding and Lindner both gave short speeches and a La Liga representative took the mic to offer his thanks for the warm welcome to Cincinnati and to congratulate FC Cincinnati for its promotion to the top North American division.
Then, Berding and Lindner took turns rattling off all the memorable “firsts” for the club.
“We have a lot to be proud of,” Berding said before handing off to Lindner and continuing the exchange sentence by sentence. “We all came together to accomplish the unthinkable. … We did it with heart. We did it with pride. But, we’re not done yet. We intend to prove we are the best team in the USL and I say that as we sit atop the league. … We still have a lot to play for.”
Berding finished it off by saying, “What if we went into MLS as USL champions?” and that drew the biggest cheers before the presentation wrapped up with a video of the events on May 29 when the MLS announcement took place.
“We still haven’t come down off this high yet,” Lindner said at one point during the halftime celebration.
FC Cincinnati brass is hoping to keep riding that high right into its 2019 debut in MLS.
The Orange and Blue remain eight points ahead of second-place in the USL Eastern Conference heading into a key match against future MLS foe Nashville SC on Aug. 4, and the way they are playing, a shot at winning a trophy before leaving the league is well within grasp.
Saturday was a chance to sharpen up for the final third of the season, spread the playing minutes and give Tyler Gibson and Village their club debuts. Gibson broke his leg in February and has worked hard to get back to the pitch, and Village made a double save in the 72nd minute, shortly before exiting. Koch said he was pleased with both.
It also a chance to encourage fans to keep showing their support for a club looking to collect its first playoff wins.
"You could see the fans were enjoying themselves," Koch said. "We scored two fantastic goals. … For us to score two goals against a great La Liga team is something pretty special. I think the fans enjoyed it.
“You could feel a little bit of a carnival there. We caught the tail of the MLS celebration, but you could feel the passion in the city with everyone that shows up in the stadium.
“It was a fun night.”