CINCINNATI -- As special as FC Cincinnati’s magical run through the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was, even coach Alan Koch will tell you it was a distraction from the club’s true focus.
FC Cincinnati is in the thick of a tight playoff race with nine United Soccer League games left, but has been juggling lineups and splitting time preparing for the Open Cup tournament and league play the past three months.
The second-year club advanced two more rounds into the Cup than any other USL side and finally saw its run come to a close with a 3-2 extra-time loss to Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls in the semifinals Tuesday.
Cincinnati now turns its full attention on winning a USL title as the Orange and Blue travels to play New York Red Bulls II on Saturday. FC Cincinnati enters the match at seventh in the Eastern Division, while the baby Bulls are in ninth.
“It’s kind of a happy and sad moment altogether,” Koch said of the Cup run ending. “We’re obviously disappointed our Cup run came to an end. It was amazing for everyone involved, but it certainly makes our lives easier just being able to focus on one thing.
“Any time a second division team tries to go hit with a Division I team, it takes a toll, and it’s definitely taken a toll on us and where we stand in the league.”
The Open Cup added six extra games to FC Cincinnati’s schedule, which also featured an international friendly against Spanish La Liga’s Valencia CF in late July.
Koch carefully chose his lineups for the tournament based on who could afford the added minutes health-wise. However, with three games against MLS opponents and a quarterfinal at North American Soccer League spring champion Miami FC, the push to win sometimes meant the best available players then needed rest in league play.
Competing at such a high level for that many matches ultimately wore down FC Cincinnati, Koch said.
“I'd say it was fatigue,” Koch said after FC Cincinnati let go of a 2-0 lead in the loss to New York. “I think the higher you go in this game, the quicker the game is played at. Obviously, our players threw everything they could into the game. We're a second division team, they are obviously a first division team. They just kept on going.”
FC Cincinnati came out of the Cup run relatively healthy, though.
Defender Justin Hoyte missed the last two league games because of injury after playing the full 90 minutes in the tournament quarterfinal Aug. 2 and started Tuesday’s semifinal in his return but had to be subbed off in the 73rd minute. According to Koch, Hoyte is still not 100 percent but should be available Saturday, along with the rest of the team.
Cincinnati midfielder Corben Bone said despite the added workload, the benefits of advancing so far into the tournament outweigh the drawbacks. The players learned more about themselves and what the team is capable of by hanging with three MLS teams -- and beating two of them.
“If anything those games give us confidence,” Bone said. “It gave us more games to get people playing time, and the coaches did a good job rotating guys and keeping guys healthy. It increased the workload but also increased our confidence, and the way our coaches handled it with the rotation made it more positive than negative.”
In the end, it could make the team better overall.
Koch said the Cup games were confirmation -- or reconfirmation -- for some players that they could step up in big games, and that is something that could spark FC Cincinnati down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Bone netted his first goal of the season Tuesday when outsiders were questioning whether FC Cincinnati could score without Djiby Fall, and now the veteran midfielder hopes that helps him break through on more chances. Fall had scored all four of the team’s Cup goals going into the semifinals but was unavailable because of a suspension for yellow card accumulation.
“I’ve been close to scoring a few times this year and finally hit the back of the net, so that instills confidence in me to keep shooting,” Bone said. “As we’re making this playoff push, every goal counts, so I’ll use that to raise my level of play even more, and I know others will do the same and rise to the occasion.”
FC Cincinnati (8-8-7) had its biggest slip up in its two years last weekend when it lost 5-0 to Louisville City. No one within the club has blamed the loss on the Cup distraction, but it likely had at least some impact.
The Orange and Blue are now 12 points behind first-place Charlotte and seven behind second-place Louisville. A loss to New York Red Bulls II could drop them out of the playoff picture, as the top eight make the postseason.
Bone said FC Cincinnati just needs to carry the momentum from the deep Cup run into these next nine games and beyond, as there are no other matches to save up for.
“We have a really talented, experienced group, so if we cohesively believe in each other and improve on the details, scoring and finishing chances and defending well, all those small details, we’ll be successful,” he said. “We can beat anyone, and we proved that in the Open Cup. Now we just need to translate that into regular-season games.”