Long after the final whistle sounded to end FC Cincinnati’s inaugural season, fans were still hanging around to show their support for a team that accomplished so much in such a short period of time.
In less than a year, FC Cincinnati built a roster from the ground up, won over the hearts of sports fans in a big-league sports market and rewarded their trust with a playoff-caliber performance on the pitch.
No one was ready for it to end – especially the way it did. The Charleston Battery came from behind to steal away a 2-1 win in the United Soccer League Eastern Conference quarterfinals Sunday in front of a USL playoff-record crowd of 30,187 fans.
“We didn't want it to end like that, certainly,” coach John Harkes said. “I told the guys that I'm extremely proud of them because of what they accomplished in a short period of time... from the adversity, we grow as a club. We grew in perseverance, and we move forward. We know there are going to be more opportunities, more moments for us.”
Here’s are the top 9 takeaways from the game.
A squandered lead
Eric Stevenson ripped a shot from distance in the 19th minute to put FC Cincinnati on the board first, but the home side couldn’t protect the lead going into halftime and it turned out that was all the offense could muster.
Harkes said he recognized Stevenson's goal at halftime.
“What an absolutely brilliant strike from a player that many said would never play soccer again," Harkes said. "We took a chance on him, put faith in him and he rewards us with that goal. I told the guys, 'Let's try not to waste that. It's a special goal.'”
Stevenson had worked his way back this season from double hip surgery that sidelined him for more than 18 months. Sunday’s goal was his fourth of the season.
“The ball came to Ugo (Sean Okoli) on the left side, and he got a chance to turn on it,” Stevenson said. “I was in the midfield, more toward the inside, and he flicked it to me with the outside of his foot and I just took a big touch forward and the opening in the back line stood out to me, so I was like, 'Why not?'”
Set piece breakdowns
Set pieces proved to be problematic for FC Cincinnati’s defense Sunday, as Charleston used them to score both its goals.
Trailing 1-0 early, Charleston scored the equalizer in the 40th minute off a long throw-in, which Chris Tsonis flicked in with a header past Mitch Hildebrandt. There seemed to be some miscommunication between Hildebrandt and centerback Austin Berry, who challenged Tsonis for the header and missed as Hildebrandt tried to come in and grab it.
Misfortune hit for FC Cincinnati on another set piece in the 65th minute when Zach Prince headed in Maikel Chang’s corner kick. Tyler Polak actually got a head on it but his clear attempt redirected the ball backward, the opposite direction of Hildebrandt’s dive.
“The first goal, we thought we were marked up, and in kind of a fluke, it went over Austin's head and I tried to get to it and just couldn't get to it,” Hildebrandt said. “The second, corner kick deflected toward goal and I don't think Tyler had enough time to move out of the way and it was just unlucky.”
A bit of controversy
After the Battery’s first goal, FC Cincinnati seemed to be arguing that Tsonis had pushed off Hildebrandt. The replay does show some slight contact, as Tsonis bounced off Hildebrandt to get to the throw, but it wasn’t enough to draw the attention of the officials.
There also was some question as to whether O’Brian Woodbine’s throw was legal, as he tends to walk right into play at the end of his throws and did the same there.
Hildebrandt didn’t mention either possibility. Both goals stung, just like any other.
“It doesn't matter if it's a set piece, if it's from open play, if it's a penalty kick, if it's an own goal, if it's a world class goal,” he said. “They are all the same to me. I'll break down the tape and see what I can do better, and we'll go from there.”
Hildebrandt finished the regular season fourth in the league for save percentage (.742) out of goalkeepers who played 24 games or more and had the third best goals against average (0.83). He had three saves Sunday.
Andrew Wiedeman had a golden opportunity to score the go-ahead goal at the very end of the first half when Kenney Walker sent a long ball to his wide open feet right outside the 6-yard box, but Charleston goalkeeper Alex Tambakis came out to challenge and Wiedeman couldn’t get an angle past him.
Earlier in the half, in the 33rd minute, Okoli had a chance to put away a cross right in front of the goal, but his header sailed wide. Stevenson had another near-goal late in the second half with a nice strike from the top of the 18-yard box, but it went just over the crossbar.
FC Cincinnati finished with 15 shots, including four on goal.
Third time is not a charm
Charleston was one of three teams on the regular-season slate that FC Cincinnati was not able to beat. After falling 1-0 to the Battery on the road in the season opener and drawing 1-1 at home July 30, FC Cincinnati was hoping the third time would be the charm.
So, what made Charleston so difficult to solve? Harkes said it was all in the way the Battery sits back on defense.
“They are a well-established club, and they get it and they make it difficult,” Harkes said. “They compress the field, they shorten and drop off. They play a lot of defense and then they hit the counter. They use a lot of athleticism on the field. You see that not just in USL, but all over in the game of soccer. Some teams, that's how they get results. We have to be able to learn from that.”
Another physical game
Charleston once again proved to be a more physical opponent, and not-so-surprisingly finished with 21 fouls, compared to FC Cincinnati’s six. Early on it was clear the game would be a chippy one when a little pushing occurred between two opposing players after a Charleston player refused to back off the ball before a free kick.
There were other similar instances in which it seemed Charleston was trying to get in FC Cincinnati’s heads. However, the home side did a better job than other times of not letting it affect its game. FC Cincinnati didn’t change its style and continued to press on.
No giving up
FC Cincinnati never had a letdown Sunday. A few times in the past, they had immediate breakdowns after scoring a goal, but Charleston wasn’t able to respond until 21 minutes later. Even then, FC Cincinnati continued to fight for opportunities.
As time began to wind down, FC Cincinnati turned to its bench to bring in players that could help bolster the attack, including bringing in newcomer Casey Townsend for Corben Bone in the 74th minute. FC Cincinnati had the ball in the Battery’s defensive third through most of the four minutes of stoppage time, and even Hildebrandt moved forward on a corner kick in the final seconds, but FC Cincinnati just couldn’t get a good, clear shot off.
“I'm proud of the way we fought,” Hildebrandt said. “Everybody fought. They got the equalizer. We fought, and they scored again, and no one put their head down. That was something about this team the entire year. Everybody fights for each other, and that's what makes this team special. We fought until the 94th minute.”
Even before the gates opened Sunday, FC Cincinnati had smashed the USL single-game playoff attendance record of 20,886 set by Orlando City SC in the 2013 championship. The club had announced it had hit the 25,000 tickets sold mark Saturday, and the crowd of 30,187 took up several seats in the upper deck on the east side of the stadium that is usually closed off to fans.
The record is the third one FC Cincinnati now holds in the USL books. The first-year club broke its own single-game regular-season attendance record (for a third time) when 24,376 fans showed up for the home finale Sept. 17, a figure that brought the season attendance record to 259,437.
Prior to this season, Sacramento Republic held the single-game regular-season attendance record at 20,231 and the previous season record at 158,516, a mark that FC Cincinnati surpassed in its 10th of 15 home games.
General Manager Jeff Berding said it has been a remarkable season.
“We're appreciative for Cincinnati, my hometown, and the city I love," Berding said. "The support was there from the first game, but 30,000 there today, wow, what a statement. From our city and our fans, with a game experience that was electric, we proved once again this is a sports town. We were confident in that from day one, and I don't think anyone around the country or internationally in the soccer community has any doubt about Cincinnati being a great sports city.”
Both Harkes and Berding said the club is already looking to next season and is ready to build off the success from this year.
FC Cincinnati went 16-7-8, finished as the third-best team in the Eastern Conference in the regular season and earned a home playoff game in its first year – something more than half the teams in the league did not accomplish in their first years.
“As remarkable as this season has been, it certainly ends with enormous disappointment,” Berding said. “We weren't ready for the season to end, but sports sometimes can be cruel. Our fans and our teams are all too familiar with that cruelty and the pain that comes with it.
"I promise we will let that drive us, and we will be right back at it tomorrow. This is not the end. This is the beginning. We have the advantage next year, we are not building a team from scratch, and the work we begin tomorrow is how do we build from this? We will build from this and we will be better next year.”