CINCINNATI -- Rivalries can sometimes be overhyped -- forced by geography and labels attached to them. But there is no denying the heat behind the River Cities Cup.
FC Cincinnati will play its home opener Saturday against rival Louisville City FC, and those that have followed the derby the past two years likely are wondering what kind of drama will unfold this time. The rivalry intensified last year, and now the two clubs -- separated by just 104 miles -- will be going at it to protect 2-0-0 records in the eighth meeting.
“It's going to build,” said FC Cincinnati midfielder Corben Bone, who played 611 of the 630 total minutes in the seven previous matchups. “As the years go by, it's going to continue to catch steam and the games we play in have always been fun and intense."
The rivalry hit a new level last year in the first matchup, a 1-1 draw on April 22 that featured more fouls than shots and ended in controversy.
After the game, Louisville coach James O’Connor accused Djiby Fall of biting one of his players, and the United Soccer League handed Fall a six-game suspension. The league’s decision came upon reviewing apparent contact between Fall and Louisville midfielder Niall McCabe after Fall was issued an 87th-minute red card.
FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding issued a statement before the league’s review saying it was unfortunate that O’Connor “once again made serious post-match allegations against FC Cincinnati.”
Louisville City fired back with a statement of its own challenging Berding’s comments; however, it wasn’t the first time O’Connor had taken aim at FC Cincinnati in a post-match interview.
In 2016, O'Connor criticized FC Cincinnati's professionalism for going forward with a warm-weather game on the artificial turf at Nippert Stadium, a match the hosts won 2-0. O’Connor later claimed one of his players sustained burns on his feet during the match and missed time for the injury.
The drama also has extended to fans. Last year during the second matchup in Louisville, a group of FC Cincinnati supporters were kicked out of the stadium when some streamers were thrown onto the field.
“A rivalry certainly exists between the fans and the players,” FC Cincinnati defender Matt Bahner said. “We know a lot of each other on the team. Some of them have played here and we grew up playing with some of them, so knowing each other adds a little more maybe as well. It's two great teams and whenever you have two great teams going at each other, it's always going to be heated."
A crowd of about 30,000 is expected to attend Saturday’s game, though snow in the forecast could impact numbers.
Last year’s first home game against Louisville City drew 20,437 fans, including a section for the visiting supporters.
“It's one of those games that's high-intensity and the stands will be packed, so emotions will be high,” Bone said. “It’s a fun game to play in.”
FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said geography is what started the rivalry, but it’s evolved for an assortment of reasons.
Some of it has to do with the competitiveness of the teams vying for position in the USL Eastern Division, but some of it has to do with the big personalities involved the first two seasons. Five of the seven previous matchups between the clubs have been decided by one goal or ended in draws.
“I think geographics is what has driven it the most, just being so close to each other, so our fans can interact and obviously follow us whenever we go down there and their fans come up here,” he said. “I think the quality of both our teams, I think the quality of the personas within our groups, I think everything adds to it that makes it a very, very special experience, and I'm sure Saturday will be a special night too.”
Louisville City has been one of the top teams in the league throughout its existence, winning the USL championship last season. FC Cincinnati has been a playoff team its first two seasons, and both are expected to be competitive again this year.
FC Cincinnati is coming off two big road wins to start the season, beating Charleston Battery for the first time in club history on March 17 and ruining Indy Eleven’s home opener last weekend. Both were 1-0 wins for a club that had just four road victories last year and a total of 12 points in away matches.
Louisville won its first two games at home, beating Nashville 2-0 and Tampa Bay 1-0.
“We respect them,” Koch said. “They're the champions obviously. They retained a big core of their group, so they will feel very, very confident coming in here, but we're very confident in our group too. We've got a good start to the season and why not challenge yourself in your first home game playing the champions. It will be a very good test for us, but we're excited to embrace that test.”