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FC Cincinnati could clinch a playoff berth this weekend

FCC is riding a 15-game unbeaten streak
Posted: 6:03 PM, Aug 30, 2018
Updated: 2018-08-30 22:04:06Z

CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch regularly comments on how he doesn't get "too high with the highs or too low with the lows," so it's not surprising that the he isn't emphasizing the possibility of clinching a playoff berth this weekend.

The playoffs clearly are a goal, but Koch understands that isn't the endgame.

FCC (17-3-6) has led the United Soccer League Eastern Division for 17 of the last 18 weeks and is 11 points up on second-place Louisville heading into a match Saturday at home against third-place Pittsburgh (12-3-10).

A win over the Riverhounds and a little help elsewhere in the league could lock up the team's third playoff berth this weekend, but FCC has eight games left and much else to play for.

"It means absolutely nothing," Koch said of the chance to clinch. "We have a game Saturday that's (worth) three points, and that's all I care about. That's all our group cares about. I don't give a flying who-knows-what about what the game means on Saturday other than that we are playing for three points against a good team who is competing with us right at the top of the league."

FCC has been to the playoffs before and has yet to win a game there. 

This year, the Orange and Blue wants more than just a taste of the postseason or even one win – they want to leave the league with a USL Cup title as they move into Major League Soccer next year.  

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"It's a nice accomplishment, but we have bigger goals than just making the playoffs," midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin said. "It's a testament to how well we've played this year to mathematically clinch it this early, if that happens, but we want to win the league outright. We want to be the top team out of both conferences. That's our goal. That's what we're working toward."

It is early to clinch, but as McLaughlin pointed out, that just shows how well FCC is playing this season. Cincinnati is riding a club-record 15-game unbeaten streak and a club-record four-match win streak into Saturday and owns an FCC-record 17 wins. The 2016 team had 16 wins and racked up 11 straight victories.

FCC hasn't lost since May 26, three days before it was awarded an MLS expansion bid to join the top division in 2019. And, after last Saturday's win at Tampa, the club completed its third-consecutive unbeaten month for the first time ever. 

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"I think the group is very confident right now," McLaughlin said. "We've been on a really good run here and I think the team is really coming together and we have confidence in our abilities and good chemistry within the group. We go out there and believe we can beat any team. I think that's extremely important right now."

The first task at hand now is beating Pittsburgh. Cincinnati owns a 3-0-3 record against the Riverhounds, including a win in the U.S. Open Cup on the road this year and a 2-2 draw at home in April.

Results elsewhere will determine if a win against Pittsburgh will be enough to clinch, though.

FCC needs either for both the New York Red Bulls II (vs. Ottawa Fury FC on Friday) and North Carolina FC (vs. Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday) to lose or draw to drop their maximum available points totals below 60, which is the ninth lowest maximum points total mark in the USL Eastern Division. 

Or, the Orange and Blue need to have Penn FC either draw or take victory against Bethlehem Steel FC on Sunday to drop Steel FC below its current maximum of 60 points. A win for either New York or North Carolina and a win by Bethlehem would see FCC have to wait a fraction longer for its playoff spot, with Steel FC still able to catch Cincinnati in the total wins column, the first tiebreaker.

The top eight teams in the division make the playoffs. FCC, with eight games left, can get a maximum of 81 points.

"It doesn't really matter how you do it," Koch said. "If you do it hopefully early like we're trying to achieve, or if you do it the last day of the season, you've got into the postseason. I think in North American sports, it's about getting into the postseason. It doesn't matter when you get there. 

"We're trying to achieve more than just getting into the playoffs. We want to try to win the regular season. It shows the body of work that we've put in, and it's what motivates our staff, it's what motivates the club, it's what motivates the players every single day."

FCC can help its chances of winning the Eastern Division by beating Pittsburgh on Saturday and Louisville next weekend. Cincinnati hasn't beaten Louisville this season. The defending league champions can collect a maximum of 76 points right now, while the Riverhounds can get a maximum of 75.

SportsClubStats.com has FC Cincinnati's average finishing position as 1.1, while FiveThirtyEight.com gives the team a 26 percent chance of winning the USL Cup.

However, McLaughlin said the team isn't taking its long hold on first place for granted.

"Nothing is expected," he said. "Nothing comes easy in this business. Things can change so quickly, so we take it one game at a time and focus on getting three points against our current opponents. Our focus right now is three points against Pittsburgh. It's all we can look towards right now and we'll see how the rest plays out.

"The thing is when you're at the top there is always someone on your heels, always someone pushing so if you take a game off, you have a week off and they catch up very quickly so we have to go pedal to the medal and continue pushing forward and trying to get as many points as possible to try to stay at the top."

If FCC does clinch a playoff berth, Koch might end up celebrating, though.

Just a little.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get there, if and when it happens," he said.