CINCINNATI - FC Cincinnati was all about celebrating Saturday night at its final United Soccer League regular-season home game.
It started with an on-field marriage proposal between two season-ticket holders known as “Cincy Super Fans,” continued with a 3-0 win over Indy Eleven and ended with a post-game presentation of the club’s first USL regular-season championship trophy on “Fan Appreciation Night.”
The third-year club clinched the title Wednesday on the road, then treated a record crowd of 31,478 fans at Nippert Stadium to a night to remember, as the Orange and Blue registered their 10th straight win and extended a 21-game unbeaten streak against a top 5 team.
PHOTO GALLERY: Night to remember for FC Cincinnati fans
Fanendo Adi and Danni Konig tallied goals, Russell Cicerone’s shot on frame was deflected in by Indy Eleven defender Carlyle Mitchell for an own goa,l,and Evan Newton preserved his ninth clean sheet with a number of dazzling saves.
FCC broke its previous regular-season single-game attendance record of 30,417 fans, and it was an environment fitting of a party. The club was serenaded by the traditional “Campeones” song that has become popular in soccer to celebrate championships as players walked off the field, and moments later captain Dekel Keinan hoisted the silverware with his teammates and coaches on a stage at midfield.
“These players sacrificed everything for you,” FCC coach Alan Koch told the crowd during the presentation. “Tonight is not the end. Tonight is just the beginning.”
The Orange and Blue have two more games to go before the playoffs, traveling to third-place Pittsburgh next weekend and to ninth-place Nashville on Oct. 13. Before FCC moves forward, here’s a deeper look at Saturday’s match:
1. No letting up: Collecting a 3-0 win over fifth-place Indy Eleven was no small task, as FCC was playing its third game in eight days, the last two matches on the road. The Orange and Blue had a late night Wednesday celebrating together after they clinched the title with a 4-1 win at Richmond in a game that was delayed 90 minutes in the second half. Then, their flight back was delayed Thursday – they arrived in Cincinnati around 6:30 p.m. and had just one day of training Friday to prepare for the Eleven.
Midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin downplayed the difficulty of that, but momentum – and the surge of energy from the crowd anxious to celebrate – was on the club’s side.
“Honestly, we try to focus on the present all the time, but this wasn’t built in one day, this wasn’t built in one year,” he said. “This has been a long time coming for this club. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs and we’ve had a lot of heartache to get to this point.
"You look back, you think of the loss in the playoffs in the first year where it feels like we have the victory under our belts. You learn from that, you move on … I think you grow from those experiences and it showed this year.
"The run we’re on right now is honestly remarkable, and it’s not over yet. We have another goal to accomplish and we’re going to enjoy this tonight, but this week we start preparing for the next objective.”
McLaughlin assisted the first two goals and initiated the play that led to the final dagger.
Adi put FCC up in the 34th minute, taking advantage of space at the top of the penalty box and threading a shot between two defenders for his third goal since joining the team July 30 as its first designated player for Major League Soccer next year.
Then, Konig tallied his 11th goal of the season – his first since Aug. 4 – when Indy keeper Owain Fon Williams came out to try to intercept McLaughlin’s pass at the top of the box and whiffed on the clear, allowing Konig an open shot on goal to make it 2-0 in the 65th minute.
The third goal came nine minutes later when Cicerone took a shot from the corner of the box and the defender got a foot on it to help it into the back of the net.
Newton finished with five saves.
“Fun game tonight,” Koch said. “I don’t think it would be as enjoyable celebrating a regular-season championship if we didn’t go out and get a positive result against a very good team tonight. Fun night all around.
"I said to the guys, ‘Go out and enjoy it tonight.’ We obviously enjoyed it Wednesday. We get to enjoy it together tonight with everybody.”
2. Different approach: After clinching Wednesday, Koch said he would use the next few games to give guys that haven’t seen a lot of playing time more minutes. On Saturday, the lineup featured Cicerone, Sem de Wit, Matt Bahner and Tyler Gibson, who have been limited to eight games or fewer this season (Gibson and Bahner hampered by injuries) and Serie A S.P.A.L. loanee Pa Konate, who needed one more appearance to be eligible for the playoffs. There were 10 changes from Wednesday’s lineup at Richmond.
The fact the lineup can see so many changes without a dropoff in the results this late in the season is another testament to the depth and talent of the roster.
“We just need to fine-tune what we need to do every game before the playoffs, I think that’s the primary objective,” Cicerone said. “And then personally, just keep the question in the coach’s mind if he wants to use me in the playoffs, that’s the biggest thing for me.”
3. Strong finish: Indy had the advantage in almost every statistical category except goals, yet FCC looked like the stronger team most of the match. The Eleven held possession for almost 60 percent of the game, out-shot FCC 20-9, was more accurate in passing, won more duels and had 14 interceptions compared to Cincinnati’s eight. Indy had 24 crosses, five shots on target and FCC finished with 36 clearances.
The difference was that FCC was more patient and precise in its attack. Even despite the overwhelming imbalance in the stats, Indy didn’t look like it was in the game after about the first 20 minutes.
FCC just continues to prove it can win in different ways.
“We want to squeeze everything we can out of this group,” Koch said. “I don’t think we’ve peaked yet. As good as we have been, I think we’re still capable of more. But we want to give ourselves the best chance possible to be successful in the playoffs. In a cup competition, anything can happen in 90 minutes, 120 minutes, penalty kicks. But, we want to control as much as we can control.”
PLAYER PERFORMANCES OF NOTE
Jimmy McLaughlin: McLaughlin has mainly been used off the bench this season, but the third-year FCC player got his 10th start of the season and deservedly so on such a special night. He played a role in all three goals, either by assist or initiation, and now has four assists this season.
Evan Newton: Newton has shared time with Spencer Richey this season but was the lone player to start both Wednesday and Saturday, and he was solid. Of his five saves, two were great diving stops to preserve his ninth shutout. FCC has 12 clean sheets this season, which is sixth-best in the league.