CINCINNATI -- The first-year United Soccer League club clinched a home playoff game Saturday with a 1-0 win over Orlando City B in front of yet another record crowd, as 24,376 fans piled into Nippert Stadium for the final home game of the regular season.
Newly acquired forward Casey Townsend scored the game-winner in the 81st minute in his home debut. Here are the top 9 takeaways from the game:
1. The pressure is off
FC Cincinnati (15-6-8, 53 points) closes out the regular-season slate at Pittsburgh on Sept. 24 but already has locked up third place in the Eastern Conference. The top four teams earn a first-round home game.
The Orange and Blue still essentially would have clinched the home game with a tie against Orlando City, thanks to fourth-place Charlotte (49 points) losing to Richmond; however, fifth-place Charleston (48 points) could have still caught up with FC Cincinnati with a win for itself and a loss for Cincinnati. Even in that scenario, FC Cincinnati would have had the edge on tiebreakers unless Charleston overcame a six-goal differential deficit.
“We’re happy to get the three points,” FC Cincinnati coach John Harkes said. “We get the solidification of our home game for the playoffs. … We enjoy the [celebratory] moments when they come. In the back of our mind, we’re still focused on the target. We’ve got ourselves in a good situation, and we’ve got to enjoy it.”
2. Well done, Cincinnati
FC Cincinnati’s attendance record marks the third time it has broken the league’s single-game attendance record. The Orange and Blue first broke the Sacramento Republic’s record of 20,231 tickets sold (in 2014) during an April 16 match against Louisville City when FC Cincinnati drew a crowd of 20,497. The club then sold 23,375 tickets to a May 14 match against Pittsburgh to improve the mark.
With the 24,376 fans in attendance on Saturday, FC Cincinnati caps the league’s season attendance record at 259,437.
“We certainly don’t take it for granted having this type of fan base,” Harkes said. “It was great to see us break the record again tonight. It shows the passion for the club, and I think that matches the passion on the field that we’re getting from our players. … When the fans come out and support us like that, we want to reward them.”
3. An extra piece to the puzzle
FC Cincinnati picked up Townsend from the Wilmington Hammerheads on Sept. 8 to help fill the void left by Omar Cumming’s recent knee injury and to bolster an attack that averages 1.4 goals per game.
He did exactly what he was brought in to do Saturday when he lifted Cincinnati to victory with his first goal for the Orange and Blue.
“Obviously, I feel good about it,” Townsend said. “I’m here to help put us over the edge a little going into the playoffs, so I’m glad I could do my part today.”
In 12 games with Wilmington, Townsend, 27, had two goals and five assists. He was a first-round MLS SuperDraft pick in 2012, going fifth overall to Chivas USA but was traded to D.C. United in 2013. He spent time in the USL, North American Soccer League and MLS in 2014.
4. It was a dual-effort goal
Townsend, who played (and started) his first game on Wednesday in a draw at Pittsburgh, came off the bench in the 66th minute Saturday, and 15 minutes later, he slightly redirected Eric Stevenson’s cross into the back of the net on a header.
However, the officials went back and forth on whether he actually got a head on the ball but ultimately credited him with the goal.
“He played a great ball and to be honest, I got the slightest touch on it so I would have been just as happy with you guys crediting him with it,” Townsend said. “He played a great ball, so that was mostly him.”
5. Defense peaking
The game marked FC Cincinnati’s third straight clean sheet, as the defense seems to be peaking at the right time. Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt needed just two saves to collect his eighth shutout this season.
Orlando City (8-13-8, 32 points) finished with seven shots and did have some close opportunities that ended up just wide, but FC Cincinnati had 17 shots of its own.
“That continuity is there finally, and we’re just rolling with it,” Hildebrandt said of the defense’s efforts. “We’re playing well together. Those guys have been monsters making it easy back there. I really haven’t had to do a whole lot back there the last two games, and I’ll take that any day.”
The home side opened in a 4-2-3-1 formation for a second time this season.
6. Stepping up their game
With the game still scoreless, FC Cincinnati played much more aggressive in the second half, an adjustment that came as both teams had something on the line Saturday.
The visiting club was trying to improve its position in the standings, as it entered the night in eighth place and now holds just a one-point lead over Wilmington. The top 8 make the playoffs.
But while Orlando City had three fouls in the second half (to finish with seven), FC Cincinnati picked up 11 of its 13 fouls in the final period. Four players for Cincinnati received yellow cards – Harrison Delbridge, Stevenson, Pat McMahon and Townsend.
Harkes liked the “sacrifices” and the way players “dug in,” but he is still looking for a little more improvement on the offensive end before the playoffs begin.
“Being a little more ruthless with the opportunities we create, just burying our chances,” Harkes said. “If we can do that, close the door a little more and not let teams back in, we’ll be okay.”
7. Throwing caution to the wind
Kenney Walker, Corben Bone, Tyler Polak and Sean Okoli entered the night one yellow card away from suspension; however, all four made it through cleanly Saturday and will not have to worry about potentially missing a playoff game because of yellow card accumulation.
Walker, Bone and Polak have four yellows, while Okoli has seven. Normally, the fifth and eighth yellow cards warrant a one-game suspension, but even if any of them are carded in the regular-season finale Sept. 24 at Pittsburgh, their slates are wipes clean for the playoffs and they would not have to serve a suspension.
With a home playoff game on the line, no one took their foot off the gas pedal Saturday, as all four players in jeopardy of suspension for the finale still started and played as they normally would. Now the pressure is off anyway.
8. Finally a chance for rest
Louisville City locked up the No. 2 seed with a win late Saturday and New York Red Bulls II already claimed the regular-season title, so given FC Cincinnati cannot improve or worsen its playoff seeding, the regular-season finale at Pittsburgh is a chance to rest some players.
Harkes did not commit one way or another to doing so, but said he would assess the health and status of his players throughout the coming week.
“We still have a lot of work ahead of us because a lot of teams are going to come at us fighting. We have to finish the business next week at Pittsburgh. We have to prepare our bodies, and mentally and physically we have to be ready to compete.”
Harkes did not give an indication of his plans for the team’s top goal scorer. He did say Okoli should be happy with the 15 goals he has scored in the club’s first season.
9. Home sweet home
FC Cincinnati will return to Nippert on Oct. 2 for its first-round playoff game against an opponent to be determined. The game will kick off at 4 p.m. (The Bengals play the Thursday before that, for those worried about a conflict).
Current FC Cincinnati season ticket holders will be able to purchase their existing seats and add more seats, based on availability, to their account for the club’s home playoff fixture beginning 9 a.m. Monday. Season ticket holders can purchase tickets by logging on to their account or by calling FCC directly at 513-977-KICK.
Beginning Wednesday, all 2017 deposit holders will be able to secure playoff tickets based on availability and are asked to check their email for specific instructions. All remaining available tickets will be released to the general public at 9 a.m. Thursday.