FC Cincy wants to be the team that breaks the city's playoff drought -- and it's poised to do so

It enters postseason on a 23-game unbeaten streak
FC Cincy wants to be the team that breaks the city's playoff drought -- and it's poised to do so
Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 18, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-18 07:00:24-04

CINCINNATI -- As an FC Cincinnati player, Mike Lahoud tries to support the other local professional sports teams, but he has quickly learned that along with cheering on teams like the Reds and Bengals comes the potential for misery in the postseason.

FC Cincinnati wants to be a part of changing that for the fan base.

Cincinnati (23-3-8), which won the United Soccer League regular-season title with a record number of wins, enters the postseason on a 23-game unbeaten streak. The team will host regional rival Nashville SC (12-9-13) in the first round of the playoffs at 4 p.m. Saturday at Nippert Stadium.

The city hasn't experienced a playoff series win from the Reds since 1995, and the Bengals' last playoff victory was in 1990, despite seven postseason appearances under coach Marvin Lewis.

"This is the first of four incredible opportunities to do something that hasn't been done in this city in a long, long time," Lahoud said, speaking of the playoff drought in Cincinnati's two major sports. "As much as you like to compare yourselves to other sports, we feel we're different, and we're here to prove that. So far, we have proven that, and we just have to take the next step to do something even more special this weekend." 

FC Cincinnati is 0-2 in the playoffs, but this team is unlike either of the last two groups that faltered in the postseason. The Orange and Blue lost to Charleston at home in the first round of the 2016 playoffs after finishing third in the Eastern Conference. But that was the first season of a growing club.

Last year, FC Cincinnati battled through adversity as coach Alan Koch spent the season trying to find the right combinations with a team he took charge of last-minute in the preseason. That team had to fight to the finish just to get to the postseason and ended up falling on the road at Tampa Bay in the first round.

Coming off such a successful regular season, the team carries higher expectations this year. Cincinnati finished with 11 more points than any other team in the USL and needs just four more wins to take the Cup in its final season before moving into Major League Soccer next year.

"It would be unbelievable," defender and Cincinnati native Matt Bahner said. "The last championship was the '90 Reds, which was when I was born, so I haven't seen one. To be a part of a team that has the ability to win a Cup for this club, and being a Cincinnati guy, it would be a dream come true, honestly."

Nashville is a tougher challenge than its No. 8 seeding would indicate. FC Cincinnati has tied the future MLS rival four times this year, including a 2-2 draw in the preseason and Saturday's 3-3 game in the regular-season finale.

Lahoud said he recalls thinking at one point Saturday that Nashville just doesn't give up. Cincinnati was out-possessing Nashville and seemed to be wearing down the first-year team, yet the Orange and Blue still couldn't shake its opponent.

This Saturday, one team will come out on top, even if it takes extra time or penalty kicks. And Lahoud isn't worried about the so-called "curse."  

"I'm not superstitious," he said. "I believe you are only as good as your preparation, and there is only so much you can control, but your preparation you can control. We are a team that has prided ourselves on our preparation this year and our ability to adapt formationally and to adapt to situations, and we are preparing for one moment that sends us to the next round. If it's an opportunity on offense or on defense, someone has to step up and take it moment by moment and give ourselves the best chance."

Koch said it's no benefit to have just seen Nashville, other than it saves a little time in scouting. It seems there would be a different mindset this week with the single-elimination format of the playoffs, but that is how FCC approached every game during the regular season, too.

Cincinnati just has more experience -- mostly positive -- to pull from at this point in the year.

"Everything during the year has been game by game, so obviously we have a big plan and I have to have a philosophy that matches that plan," Koch said. "But everything we've done since the first game of the season has been game by game, so nothing changes. We've gone week by week in terms of preparation for every single game, and we'll do the exact same thing this week.

"There is no next week," Koch said. "There is a game on Saturday. And seeding, to be quite honest, means nothing because we've tied this team four times this year. In our business, anything can happen in one game, so there is no favorite. There is no seed. The beauty is we are at home, and that's something we are excited about. We don't have to worry about traveling again, and we will embrace sleeping in our own beds and getting ready for a big challenge."

Bahner, a second-year FC Cincinnati player, said this group is "hungry to finish" what it started. The team hasn't lost since May 26, but the three losses this season and the last one in 2017 have lingered with some players.

The playoff game last year still leaves a bitter taste for the returning players, but Bahner said it feels different entering the postseason this time.

"We feel confident, for sure, in how we've been playing," Bahner said. "We certainly can always improve, but we feel good going into it. If we perform to our ability, we should be able to win, and really we feel we can beat anybody, so we're focused on putting in a good performance and playing up to our ability."

It's a win-or-go home scenario now and all it takes is one goal to end the season. But the club's resiliency makes Lahoud believe this year will be different for FCC in the postseason.

"Playoffs are all about resilience," Lahoud said. "You are not going to play your best game every round, and we have so much experience. I remember Reggie Miller in a documentary called, 'Winning Time,' and playoff soccer is all about winning time and winning moments. Winning teams find winning moments, and we've been able to find winning moments when we've played our best and when we haven't played our best. It's all about results. It's all about who can step up and 'Seize the Dey' -- pun intended."