CINCINNATI – FC Cincinnati hadn’t scored a goal from a set piece through 19 matches this season.
That changed in the 23rd minute of Wednesday night’s match when Forrest Lasso’s header found the net off Kenney Walker’s precision free kick to cap the scoring in a 2-0 victory over the Charlotte Independence before 25,251 fans at Nippert Stadium.
FCC, which ranks second in the United Soccer League with 39 goals, has little trouble scoring from open play but set pieces have become a point of emphasis for the Orange and Blue in recent weeks.
“We did an assessment as a group,” said head coach Alan Koch. “We knew set pieces were something we needed to work on. “We worked more on them more in the past two weeks than we did in the early part of the season.”
Just seven minutes into Wednesday’s match Emmanuel Ledesma’s corner kick nearly produced FCC’s first set piece goal of the season, but Lasso’s header caromed off the bar. Dekel Keinan cleaned up with his first goal of the season to put FCC ahead 1-0.
Thirteen minutes later, the 6-foot-6 Lasso headed in his first goal of the season for the final margin. Headers are something Lasso is working extensively on one or two days a week, and he’s been a big part of FCC’s improvement on that area.
“With my physicality and my size, it’s something I should be able to take advantage of,” Lasso said. “It’s a little cliché, but practice makes perfect. Hopefully this will open up the floodgates for us.”
FCC nearly had another set-piece goal in the 75th minute when Ledesma bent a corner kick into the net, but it was waved off by the official for an apparent push in the box, which Koch said he didn’t see.
“As long as you’re winning, it doesn’t matter how you score,” Koch said. “But the most dangerous teams are the ones that score goals from open play and can score from set pieces. If we can continue being good on both fronts we will be a very dangerous team.”
Wednesday’s win extended FCC’s unbeaten streak to nine matches and was its fourth straight clean sheet and sixth in the past eight contests. The Orange and Blue had seven clean sheets last season but already have nine this year.
Charlotte played without Caleb Calvert who is suspended three games for his red card for violent conduct against Nashville SC last week. But that didn’t make the win any less impressive for FCC which had more than 54 percent of the possession and scored on two of its five shots on target.
The victory increased FCC’s lead in the Eastern Conference standings to seven points over second-place Pittsburgh and nine over Charleston. Both Pittsburgh and Charleston were idle on Wednesday.
FCC (12-3-5) has eclipsed last year’s win total with 14 matches remaining.
“We have a long-term vision,” Koch said. “It’s not about where we stand today, it’s where we stand in the future. Very happy with where we are now. Winning is fun, guys are enjoying it.”
Queen City kings:
Back on May 12 when FC Cincinnati was pursuing an MLS bid and still finding its footing with only five players back from last season when they lost 4-1 at the Charlotte Independence. It was evident on Wednesday night how much has changed since then.
“The last time we played Charlotte we weren’t very good,” Koch said. “They’re a team that is very good when they are finding space. We took space away from them tonight. That was part of the game plan, and the guys executed it. We nullified their strengths.”
Wednesday night was the final Queen City Cup matchup, unless of course happen to meet in the US Open Cup at some point down the road. FCC leads the all-time series 3-2-1.
Wednesday night’s match was the second of three this week at Nippert Stadium and Koch tweaked the starting 11 accordingly. Jimmy McLaughlin made his fifth start of the season and Emery Welshman started for the ninth time replacing Danni Konig and Nazmi Albadawi. FCC hosts New York Red Bulls II on Saturday night, then have a week off before hosting RCD Espanyol in an international friendly on July 28.
Made to be broken:
FCC set a new United Soccer League mid-week attendance record on Wednesday night with 25,251 fans, breaking its own mark of 22,407 against Bethlehem Steel earlier this season. The season average at Nippert Stadium is 25,209 through 10 games. On Saturday night, FCC eclipsed one million in attendance in less than three years of existence.
Player performances of note:
Newton wasn’t challenged often in Wednesday’s game but he preserved the clean sheet when a Charlotte free kick snuck through several players before Newton dove to his left and swatted the ball clear of the post.
“It kind of hit the Nippert turf and gave me a good bounce,” Newton said. “I had a decent view but just had to watch to see what their guy would do, if he was going to flick it or not.”
Newton had two saves on Wednesday night, giving him 41 for the season. It was his eighth shutout this season.
The biggest issue for Newton in recent matches is that FCC’s back four has been so good, he hasn’t had much work.
“It’s tough for goalkeepers,” Koch said. “It’s almost more difficult when you only have to make one or two saves to manage those moments. He’ll be the first one to admit it, he hasn’t had to do too much. But if you have to make one big save in a game, sometimes it’s not that easy.”
If FCC is going to continue to get production off set pieces, Walker will play a critical role with his ability to properly place corners and free kicks, as evidence by his pinpoint free kick toward Lasso’s head for the second goal.
“We just have dangerous areas we tried to attack,” Walker said. “We just focused on whipping it in hard on the goalie and make it hard for him. If we can make contact and score, may get a goal. With the player personnel we have, we should score off restarts more and more.”
It’s rare to see two defenders score in a match. It hadn’t happened for FCC since last season. Keinan started the scoring on Wednesday by being in the right place at the right time to rebound Lasso’s miss. Keinan also had 95.1 percent pass accuracy and two shots on target in Wednesday’s game.
“I’m ecstatic for both of them,” Koch said of Lasso and Keinan. “They’re both take a lot of pride scoring goals off set pieces. They were both getting very frustrated taking so long to score. Forrest scored a lot last season and Dekel scored a lot in his career.”