CINCINNATI - FC Cincinnati was so anxious for its first playoff win, a few players started celebrating prematurely after Nashville missed an attempt in a penalty shootout to determine their Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
Fortunately, it wasn’t all for nothing.
Kenney Walker buried his shot to seal it, and the United Soccer League regular-season champion beat Nashville SC 1-1 (6-5 in penalty kicks) on Saturday before 20,217 at Nippert Stadium to advance beyond the first round of the USL Cup playoffs for the first time in three years.
The teams had played 90 minutes of scoreless soccer to send the game to extra time, but after Corben Bone tallied the go-ahead goal off Walker’s assist in the 95th minute, Nashville came back in the second overtime period to force the shootout.
Both teams made all five of their first kicks, but Justin Davis shanked the sixth try for Nashville and Walker capitalized on the opportunity to put the game away.
“It’s special for us,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said. “Obviously for our club, it’s our first USL Cup playoffs win, which is huge. It’s another big part of our history. We’ve had some great moments, but tonight is obviously one of them too.”
FC Cincinnati (24-3-8), which extended its unbeaten streak to 24 games, moves on to face New York Red Bulls II in the Eastern Conference semifinals at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at Nippert Stadium.
Here is a deeper look at the win:
1. Fitting way to end it: The game was so tight, it wasn’t surprising the winning line became blurred for some of the players. After all, they had tied all four previous meetings, including a preseason match back in March, and nothing else had separated them. Someone had to win this time, and of course it came down to one kick.
After Davis missed his attempt, Jimmy McLaughlin led the charge toward goalkeeper Spencer Richey thinking Cincinnati had just won the shootout, but Walker still had to make his shot since Nashville went first.
Walker kept his composure, stepped up to the penalty spot, adjusted the ball in the wind and converted.
“I said to our players all week long, I said to them at the beginning of the game, I said it to them after the game, it doesn’t matter if you win in 90 minutes, 120 minutes, penalty kicks, sixth penalty shootout, as long as you win,” Koch said.
“I felt we deserved to win in 90 minutes, I felt we deserved to win in 120 minutes. Penalty kicks is an absolute lottery. I’m glad we won and move on to the next round.”
The Orange and Blue had 60.1 percent possession and out-shot Nashville 22-13 but had just five shots on target and five that were blocked.
Cincinnati’s goal in the first period of extra time featured all three of the club’s remaining original players – McLaughlin, Walker and Bone - who had lost first-round playoff games in FC Cincinnati's first two seasons. McLaughlin dribbled up the right flank, dished it off to Walker, who then fed Bone at the corner of the 18-yard box to set up the goal. Bone took a touch to open up space and fired his shot to the lower right side for the lead.
Nashville answered after FC Cincinnati failed to get a good clear on a corner kick. Ismaila Jome ended up with the ball, feeding it back in to Kris Tyrpak. Tyrpak assisted Bradley Bourgeois on the goal, which was slightly deflected.
“First 20-25 minutes very good, Nashville had to adjust,” Koch said. “Like every good team, they are going to come at you for a while ,and we absorbed that pressure. I think we were just very frustrated because the goal they scored came off a little deflection, so I think other than that for the most part the guys managed the game very, very well. Deflections … anything can happen. Penalty kicks … anything can happen as well."
The next time the two teams meet again in league play, both will be in Major League Soccer, as Cincinnati moves up in 2019 and Nashville is set to join in 2020.
2. Walker redeems himself: The last time FC Cincinnati played a match that went to penalty kicks, Walker missed his shot.
He hit the crossbar in a shootout with Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup, which FC Cincinnati lost. Richey had made a save after that miss, but FC Cincinnati’s final shot was saved to give Minnesota the win.
Still, his teammates wanted Walker to take the deciding kick.
Koch determined who the first five were and left the rest up to the players. The early celebration added a little more pressure, but since Nashville had missed, Walker didn’t absolutely have to convert to keep FC Cincinnati in it.
“There was a little added pressure, but at the same time you’ve just got to go up there and score,” Walker said. “You pick your spot and either he saves it or you beat him to your spot. That’s as simple as you can put it.
"For me, I missed one earlier in the season and this one I put in the back of the net.”
Koch said he had confidence in all his shooters but called Walker “brave.” Fanendo Adi, McLaughlin, Blake Smith, Justin Hoyte and Forrest Lasso all made their kicks before Walker went to the spot.
“Kenney’s technique is first class,” Koch said. “He’s a very composed player when he’s in possession of the ball in the open game, and he’s the exact same way when he takes a penalty kick. But to have the bravery, that’s not easy. To have the composure to do that is awesome.
"For an Ohio kid to come in and score that penalty kick tonight is absolutely awesome.”
It wasn’t easy for any of them, and all six shooters had to show composure. The wind was howling and at times affecting the shot, or at least ball placement on the ground, and FC Cincinnati didn’t have the usual support of The Bailey, where previous penalty kicks have been held.
Walker knew he shouldn’t kick the ball too high off the ground because of the wind, and fortunately it worked out for him.
3. Richey steps up: Richey allowed three goals to Nashville in a 3-3 draw to finish the regular season, but he had a brilliant performance Saturday. He had a couple of point-blank saves and stopped six shots through 120 minutes of play to keep Cincinnati in the game.
Koch said although Richey didn’t actually touch the ball on Nashville’s missed penalty kick, he gets credit for saving it “because of the work that goes into it.”
Richey said he came in well-prepared for Nashville’s shooters and did what he could to affect the outcome.
“Sometimes you have a bunch of research of guys’ tendencies of where guys like to go,” Richey said. “Tonight it was a little half-and-half (going with research and gut). Brandon Allen, for example, mixes it up quite a lot, so I’m going off my gut and doing something to influence, maybe try to make one side look more appealing than the other.
“There is definitely some behind-the-scenes work that goes into it, but even if I knew a couple – Doyle, for example, I knew he likes to go that way - but sometimes you hit a good penalty and it’s unsavable.”
The shootout Saturday was more pressure than the Open Cup loss, he said.
“The Open Cup is obviously a competition we want to do well and advance in, but something about tonight felt like there was a different buzz to it,” Richey said. “I was really eager to try to keep one or two of those penalties out to take some pressure off our guys, but I wasn’t able to do that, and luckily they banged in six-for-six.”
PLAYER PERFORMANCES OF NOTE
Fanendo Adi: Adi played the full 120 minutes and then made FC Cincinnati’s first penalty kick in the shootout, marking his first complete game since joining the Orange and Blue on July 30. He appeared in nine games with four starts during the regular season and had one game with 88 minutes, but most of the time he came off or on around the 75th minute. His role was increased with Danni Konig unavailable after traveling back to Denmark on Tuesday for a personal matter. It is unclear if or when Konig will return.
Paddy Barrett: Barrett has come along strong at the end of the season and made his 17th start Saturday. He wore the captain’s armband and finished with four tackles and an 80 percent passing accuracy while playing in the spot Dekel Keinan held for much of the year.
Season-ticket holders can buy tickets now. Tickets will go on sale to the general public at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Call 513-977-KICK (5425) or visit fccincinnati.com/tickets.