CINCINNATI -- The last time FC Cincinnati won a game in penalty kicks before Saturday's playoff opener was arguably one of the most memorable matches in club history.
FC Cincinnati dramatically advanced to the 2017 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals last July with a shootout win over Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire, and that tournament run -- which featured a series of 1-0 victories -- was best described as "magical."
This past Saturday, when the Orange and Blue (24-3-8) claimed their first-ever playoff win by beating Nashville SC in sudden-death penalties, it allowed another magical run to continue. FCC extended a 24-game unbeaten streak into the USL Cup Eastern Conference semifinals, where it hosts New York Red Bulls II at 4 p.m. Saturday and, unlike the unexpected 2017 Open Cup Final Four finish, the club won't be satisfied with anything less than a championship.
"It does feel kind of the same as (the win over Chicago), but I think we're more confident in these games just because of what we did throughout the season," midfielder Kenney Walker said. "In the Open Cup last year, we weren't doing that well in the regular-season games, and this season we put the pedal down and haven't looked back. We're just trying to continue that, keep that momentum and not get too absorbed in winning that first playoff game. I think a lot of guys in this group are mature enough to say we're going to go out and win the whole thing because at the end of the day, if we go out early it's not going to be the ending everybody expected or wanted."
The 2017 U.S. Open Cup was the only major tournament FCC has experienced success in during its three years, but that stunning performance in the role of the underdog was a credit to coach Alan Koch's abilities to manage big moments.
That again has been on display throughout this season, as the Orange and Blue continue to find ways to win games, such as Saturday's Eastern Conference quarterfinal, and now they remain the favorites to take the USL Cup.
"I've managed a lot of playoff games over the years and been to penalty shootouts and been to extra times and it's nothing that's new," Koch said. "It's part of the business. I have a lot of confidence in this group. I feel we can manage games 90 minutes, 120 minutes, penalty kicks. It's why last week we simulated every type of situation. We simulated penalty kicks. We simulated 15 minutes of extra time, and we do that to prepare the team for every potentiality that might happen in the game, and I think it prepared us for success."
Koch said coaching in single-elimination tournament games has to be different than regular-season matches that can end in draws.
He told his players at various points during Saturday's match to take some risks, which he might otherwise advise against.
"You have to have the courage to go for it," Koch said. "… But you've got to be calm, cool, collected. You've got to be resourceful. You have to encourage your players. You have to give them little bits of information. You're not a bystander. You're contributing, so make sure you give as much to your group as you can to help set them up for success."
FC Cincinnati sideline reporter Lindsay Patterson has been impressed with Koch's ability to stay even-keeled no matter the situation.
"He never breaks a smile," Patterson said. "Even if they are up two or three goals, he doesn't get overly excited, and if they are down, he's calm, taking notes and encouraging the players or giving tips on things they can improve or do differently. He has a great relationship with his assistants and is always seeking input from them. … As we're seeing now and in that Open Cup last year, he's a game-changer."
Walker said the difference between now and last year's Open Cup is in the approach.
FCC, as the underdog in the Open Cup, was able to absorb pressure and hold teams long enough to find one opportunity to pull ahead, but this year, the Orange and Blue are all about taking control and trying to break down the opponent for 90 minutes or longer.
The club has been successful in both ways because of the quality group of players Koch and the organization compiled and the way Koch and his staff work to bring the best out of each individual.
"It's the whole group all together," Walker said. "It starts from the beginning of the season, what we've built throughout 34 games, 35 now, and it just shows. It's the character of the group. It doesn't matter who is on the field, we are pushing to keep going. ... Even if we're playing bad, we still find a way to either get a point or push into overtime, like here and in some of the Open Cup games. This group has a mentality of finding ways to get things done. It's shown throughout the season. We'd like to get it done sooner than later so hopefully it's not 120 minutes and PKs and we can find a way to get it done in 90 minutes. But if not, we'll be ready for it."
Now the key is making sure no one gets complacent. Winning the first playoff game was as much a relief as it was exciting, but Walker said there is more to come.
"For the guys that have been here the past couple seasons, I think that hurdle has been there and we tripped over it a couple times," Walker said. "It's good to get that out of the way. Everybody is happy, but guys want more. We aren't satisfied with one or two playoff victories. We want to make the final, win it and have something to look back on and say that was something special from the beginning all the way to the end."