CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati drew a crowd to its inaugural home opening game and delivered in every aspect.
The United Soccer League expansion club won its first-ever game at Nippert Stadium on Saturday, beating the Charlotte Independence 2-1 in front of 14,658 fans despite chilly weather.
FCC moves to 2-1-0, after securing its first regular-season victory on the road six days earlier, and continues to show improvement each game. Here’s a look at the Top 9 takeaways from the home opener:
1. Opener lived up to hype:
The club had said earlier Saturday on Twitter that more than 11,000 fans were expected to attend the home opener, and official attendance went well beyond that. To put the attendance of almost 15,000 fans in perspective, Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew SC drew 17,015 for its home opener this season. The USL regular-season attendance record is 20,231 (at a Sacramento Republic game in 2014), but the league averaged 3,369 fans a game last year.
“The players felt it on the field,” FCC head coach John Harkes said. “It's not a cliche when you look at the so-called ‘12th man.’ I thought the environment was fantastic. It lifted our boys, and we felt it in the stadium.”
Several fans straggled in late (apparently there were some delays at the box office/will call windows), but every section in the lower bowl of the stadium, except “The Legion” at the south end, was pretty much full.
2. A winning combination:
Harkes went with the same lineup that got FCC its first victory last week at Bethlehem, electing to use a 4-3-3 for a third straight game after toying with several different formations in the preseason. The lineup for all three games so far has been: Goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt, defenders Pat McMahon, Austin Berry, Harrison Delbridge and Tyler Polak, midfielders Kenney Walker, Corben Bone and Ross Tomaselli and forwards Andrew Wiedeman, Sean Okoli and Jimmy McLaughlin.
The only changes have been on the bench.
3. Sean Okoli is good:
FC Cincinnati got on the board first in the fifth minute when Corben Bone sent a cross in, and Okoli – a 23-year-old former Major League Soccer player -- took a touch, then side volleyed it into the bottom left corner of the goal. It was his second goal of the season, and both were beautiful plays. The historic first goal at home came with traffic, but Okoli was well enough aware of his surroundings to juggle the ball to a better angle before his volley.
Okoli had two other good chances in the first half but both were saved. He was named FCC’s Player of the Match.
“I thought he was brilliant tonight,” Harkes said. “He gave us some of options tonight. He fought through a lot of stuff and relieved pressure when we needed to.”
4. Everybody can score in this offense:
Not unlike other defenders earlier in the game, center back Austin Berry made a run through the attack early in the second half and it paid off for his first goal of the season. The Summit Country Day graduate and 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year scored on a diving header off Jimmy McLaughlin’s cross in the 52nd minute for a 2-0 lead.
“There was a lot of space, and ... really there was only (Okoli) up there, so I decided to join him, and Jimmy cut back and played a great ball in, and I was just fortunate to be in the right spot for it,” Berry said.
Harkes likes his defenders to make runs through the midfield and attack, and Berry was the first rewarded for it. Pat McMahon also had a shot – that was stopped – in the first half, Tyler Polak had one off target in the second half, and Harrison Delbridge might have gotten a score if he hadn’t tangled up with a Charlotte defender in the box in the 40th minute. The defender appeared to punch Delbridge on the play, and the two ended up in a little scrum that resulted in both players receiving warnings.
5. Attacking style is a blessing and a curse:
Harkes’ attacking approach to the game helped Cincinnati score two quick goals coming out of the locker room – one early to start off each half – but it also makes the club susceptible to breakdowns on defense. Charlotte got several of its opportunities on counter attacks, but got nothing out of them. Its lone goal was more of an emotional letdown for FCC, less than a minute after Berry’s goal.
“We scored the goal and got a little emotionally high, they created some opportunities, but at the end of the day we had 19 shots and 12 corner kicks,” Harkes said. “We dominated so many areas of the match.”
6. Closing out games still a work in progress:
FCC closed out this game better than the past two games, but it remains an area of concern as Cincinnati once again blew a chance at a shutout. Harkes’ philosophy is that “the best defense comes from the attack,” so the team’s inability to open up a bigger lead in the second half is something he will continue to address.
Cincinnati had given up a goal in the 94th minute in its opener March 26, resulting in a 1-0 loss at Charleston, and FCC allowed a goal in the 89th minute of a 2-1 win at Bethlehem on April 3.
“That's a process for sure,” Harkes said. “The constant emotions that are on the field; and to be fair, managing the emotions tonight was always going to be a challenge. That was the No. 1 thing we talked about in the dressing room, was how do we be consistent and stay consistent throughout the game. At this USL level, I think people are finding out there isn't an easy game, and there's always going to be a moment that can change the game. We just have to be a little more focused at times.”
7. FCC is at its best when controlling possession:
Cincinnati seemed to get its best opportunities in the first half when it dominated possession a little more. In the 4-3-3, the midfielders have a huge task in filling a lot of space, but that’s where the defenders can help by moving up. They did a little less of that deeper into the game.
The team also seemed to be going over top of the defense on long balls more than the previous two games, but Harkes said he addressed the need to play to possession to his players after the game.
“We can't forget about what we're very good at, and that's ball possession, moving off the ball, and our one-touch, two-touch passing is fantastic,” Harkes said. “We forget about that sometimes. We get caught up in the physicality of the match ... but overall we battled very well.”
8. Starters getting the job done:
FCC hasn’t used its bench much so far, and Omar Mohomed was the only reserve player to see much time Saturday. He played 22 minutes to relieve Andrew Wiedeman up front, and Paul Nicholson subbed in for Corben Bone for the final two minutes. Only 12 players have seen action in all three games so far.
Meanwhile, Charlotte made four changes in the second half, including bringing in some speed to the midfield, which lead to a quicker pace of play for the Independence late in the game. Charlotte finished with 14 shots, seven on goal.
9. Six points is key:
For FCC to get six points out of its first three games is a positive sign, especially for a first-year club that opened with two road games. Cincinnati hosts Louisville City FC (2-1) on April 16 in what is considered FCC’s biggest rivalry, as the two are trying to close the gap with Richmond and Charleston, each holding seven points.
The win Saturday also gave FCC the lead for the Queen City Cup Challenge with Charlotte. The clubs meet in North Carolina May 21, and the winner of the series keeps the silver cup.