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Fay: FC Cincinnati woke me up to soccer

Posted at 7:12 PM, May 14, 2016

CINCINNATI — FC Cincinnati pushed its unbeaten streak to five games with an easy 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Saturday at Nippert Stadium.

Calling a 1-0 win easy would seem to be contradictory, but FCC controlled both halves and had several near misses, while Pittsburgh barely threatened.

The game drew a United Soccer League record crowd of 23,375, despite weather more suitable for American football.

 

“It was a tremendous environment again,” FCC coach John Harkes said. “As a group we talked about there would be a good fan base here for us this weekend. They showed up. And, more importantly, our players showed up.”

Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebandt only had two saves in the shutout — the first for FCC this season. Pittsburgh had seven shots on goal, not quite matching FCC’s 11. Riverhounds keeper Mauricio Vargas had eight saves.

“It’s nice for the whole team,” Hildebrandt said. “We’re a good defensive team. It was a collective effort.”

FCC is 5-2-2 overall. Pittsburgh remains winless at 0-4-3. FCC has 17 points, tying Louisville City FC for first place in the USL Eastern Conference.

It was my first FCC experience. I came away impressed. The crowd was into to the game. My non-expert opinion told me FCC was way better than Pittsburgh.

Full disclosure: I’m not a soccer guy. I covered a couple of high school games a long, long time ago. My sarcastic tone in a story of a game that went scoreless through a couple of overtimes and was eventually settled on penalty kicks led to a couple of letters-to-the-editor. The writers claimed I didn’t know or appreciate soccer.

Guilty on both counts. The only soccer games I’ve gone to since were ones my nieces or nephews were playing.

But it’s been hard not to notice the growth of the popularity of the game in recent years. Most of the folks I cover the Reds with are soccer guys. They all have a Premium League they follow. They even have a fantasy league. I haven’t joined because, beyond Pelé, there are no soccer players I can name.

But I did watch the World Cup the last time around with great interest. I watched one game with a friend of my wife’s who played college soccer. She was quite the expert. Her analysis was completely lost on me.

All that said, it was impossible not to notice the buzz FC Cincinnati created. People were into the team before a single game was played. The fact that the team has been successful really added to that. Saturday’s crowd was a mixture of families with young kids and millennials.

“This is place every player in the league wants to come,” Harkes said. “I truly believe that. When they do come, this is what everybody dreams about. This is an environment you want to compete it. When they come here, it raises their game.”

Saturday’s “Orange Out” was a hit. The lower bowl at Nippert was pretty much full. The diehards filled the end zone of the open end of the stadium.

They chanted “FC! FC! FC!” on a regular basis and went suitably nuts when Jimmy McLaughlin gave the home team the lead at the 26:31 mark.

McLaughlin broke loose along the right sideline. Goalkeeper Maurico Vargas blocked McLaughlin’s first shot. But the ball ricocheted right back to McLaughlin. He got by Vargas on the second chance. It went into the left side of the goal for McLaughlin’s second goal of the season.

“Luckily, it bounced right back to me,” McLaughlin said.

Cincinnati dominated from pretty much there, starting with three shots on goal to one for Pittsburgh before McLaughlin’s goal.

Andrew Wiedeman nearly made it 2-0 with a shot in stoppage time. It sailed about a foot over the crossbar.

Still, FC Cincinnati had to be happy with a 1-0 lead. FC has been a second half team. Nine of its goal coming into the game came in the second half, compared with four in the first half.

Sean Okoli nearly added to lead at the 63:25 mark. His shot went off the right side of the goal.

Harkes is understandably pleased with the start for his club.

“I keep checking myself back: Saying this is our ninth game, a brand new club,” he said. “We’re still in such an embryo stage. We have so much ahead of us. We’re doing well, but there’s so work to be done and so much to learn.

“We’re only going to get better as the season goes on. There’s so much to build on. I’m really happy.”

Harkes knew he had a talented bunch.

“The question was whether that chemistry could come together so early,” he said. “We’re still learning about ourselves on training field… I’m little bit surprised.

“These guys needed a platform to compete on. Right now, Nippert Stadium is an incredible platform.”