The common cliché in sports is that you need to take things “one game at a time.” Looking too far ahead in the future will catch you napping against your next opponent. As good as this undefeated streak has been, coach Alan Koch has emphasized doing what you can against the next opponent, not the one you might play in the USL playoffs. The near-loss to Toronto FC II this weekend was a reminder of that.
While it helps to scout the opposition before the last minute, the planets could still align badly in the playoffs. Last year, #2 Charleston couldn’t beat #7 New York during the regular season, then got trucked at home by the Baby Bulls the first round. The same thing happened with FC Cincinnati in 2016—despite the strong end to the season, FCC couldn’t figure out the Battery during the regular season, then wilted in the second half to get knocked out early.
Basically, solid preparation is good, but the last thing you want is for fate to provide a difficult opponent. For this article, without looking too far ahead, we scout FC Cincinnati’s possible first-round opponents and rank the six in order of upset potential.
The Playoff Picture
Currently, FCC is the only team that has safely qualified for the playoffs. While the competition is getting closer to the top, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Charleston still own paths to first-round home games.
Aside from Toronto, Richmond, and Atlanta, the rest of the pack is still realistically alive. Charlotte, Tampa Bay, and Penn FC all have a tough road to get to that coveted playoff line, and while all could upset FC Cincinnati if they make it in, for the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on the closer competition.
6. Ottawa Fury FC
Record: 12-13-5 (41 pts.), currently 7th
Schedule: at Louisville, at Toronto, vs. Bethlehem, vs. Charleston
While they started out of the gate with three losses, Ottawa has been able to hang in the middle of the table. Goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau leads the East with 13 clean sheets, while the defense has kept the powerful New York Red Bulls II offense checked over three games. Forward Tony Taylor has managed to get hot lately with five goals in 11 games.
However, it’s hard to really view the Fury as a credible away threat. The team has been shut out seven times in 15 road games and has yet to score on Cincinnati’s defense. In fact, most of Ottawa’s points have come against the poorer competition—they have no wins against the Top 4 teams (0-1-5). While the road wins against Indy and New York are notable, until they can break out a credible secondary scorer, Ottawa’s chances at pulling a first-round upset appear slim.
5. Indy Eleven
Record: 12-8-9 (45 pts.), currently 5th
Schedule: at Pittsburgh, vs. Tampa Bay, at Cincinnati, vs. Bethlehem, at Louisville
This position in the rankings could be debatable. For one thing, it’s hard to guess what position Indy may finish—four of the final five games are against projected playoff teams. On the other hand, Indy has yet to face FCC at Nippert Stadium, so it’s hard to gauge just how difficult a team they are on the road.
Goalkeeper Owain Fôn Williams has quietly claimed 10 clean sheets in 29 games started, and seven of them have been on the road. Forward Eugene Starikov (5 goals in his last 10 games) has become a solid second scorer next to Jack McInerney, while Ayoze (4 goals, 6 assists) is still a mammoth presence in the defending line.
Again, Indy could legitimately be higher after their game at Cincinnati—we’ll see how well they can perform at Nippert—but so far, they’ve yet to figure out FCC. They may also be searching for that extra threat on offense, as their other big offseason pickup, forward Soony Saad, hasn’t scored since Week 11. Their away offense also may need improvement, as they’ve only scored 14 on the road in 14 games.
Their proximity to Cincinnati could bring a huge away crowd to Nippert in the playoffs. Right now, the game on September 29th could be the indicator of how difficult Indy would be in the playoffs.
4. North Carolina FC
Record: 10-10-8 (38 pts.), currently 10th
Schedule: at Atlanta, at Charleston, vs. Richmond, vs. New York, at Louisville, at Charlotte
While the former Railhawks dug themselves into an early-season hole, NCFC has bounced back. They started the first 14 games with 7 losses (including two to FCC), but have gone 6-5-3 in the next 14 games.
Forward Daniel Ríos has been a blessing on loan from Guadalajara and currently sits second in the Golden Boot standings (17 goals). Midfielders Kyle Bekker (2nd in assists) and Austin da Luz (2nd in passing) are also high on the stats charts. The potent offense is ranked fifth in the East and has gotten better with the addition of midfielder Zach Steinberger from Indy.
Considering that NCFC still has four road games to play against difficult teams, the final stretch could show how serious the team is against competition. That would require a statement away win at either Louisville or Charleston. Without either, they may miss out on the playoffs completely.
3. Bethlehem Steel FC
Record: 12-12-6 (42 pts), currently 6th
Schedule: vs. Toronto, at Ottawa, at Indy, vs. Tampa Bay
Bethlehem’s form may not scare most, as their inconsistency will flare up at bad times. Of their 12 wins, 11 have come against teams currently below them in the table. Their only marquee win is a victory at Indy Eleven in Week 10. They’ve also suffered bad losses to Penn FC twice and Atlanta. It’s hard to say which Bethlehem squad will show up.
That’s what makes them difficult to predict. So far, FC Cincinnati is the only team in the top half of the table that hasn’t defeated Bethlehem. The Orange & Blue looked inconsistent and shaky on the road, needing a Nazmi Albadawi goal late to force a 1-1 draw. The home match was even more deluding, as the team couldn’t take advantage of a lead late against a 10-man Bethlehem squad.
In total, 21 players have scored for Bethlehem, and their 50 goals ranks them fourth in the East. Santi Moar is a solid midfielder (6 goals, 8 assists) who has given FCC trouble this year, while forward Chris Nanco has improved over the season. This is an offense that will rarely be shut out. However, it’s also a team that will also rarely shut down your side. The goalkeepers have only six clean sheets, and their 40 goals allowed are tied for sixth-worst in the East.
As frustrating as the draws were against Bethlehem, let’s keep in mind that these two teams were vastly different then. Emmanuel Ledesma was serving a yellow-card suspension during the 2-2 home draw. FCC also have added Fanendo Adi and Fatai Alashe to the team since that match, while much of the Bethlehem offense has been promoted to the MLS squad. On paper, a match between the squads would look a lot different.
2. New York Red Bulls II
Record: 10-8-11 (41 pts), currently 8th
Schedule: at Charlotte, at Nashville, at North Carolina, at Penn FC, vs. Pittsburgh
I don’t blame people if they see the Baby Bulls as less of a threat than the past two years. New York has been counterproductive on the road, as they haven’t won in 13 away games (0-5-8). Much of their talent could be frozen in place on their MLS squad, and the defense is the fourth-worst in the East (54 goals allowed). However, their defense was dead-last in the East last year, and they made it to the Conference Finals!
Even though they have no players with double-digit goals, Red Bulls II still leads the USL with 62 goals scored. Six of their players have five or more goals, including forward Jared Stroud, who is tied for second in the East in assists (10). The team has almost 100 more shots than the nearest competition (544 to Phoenix’s 442). They also play a very aggressive game—their 438 tackles lead the East, as well.
However, the top teams in the East still have the Red Bulls’ number. Their lone win over the Top 4 has been a home victory over Charleston. FC Cincinnati has also appeared to figure them out over the last three matches played (3-0-0). However, this is still a young and hungry team that sees the USL as a feeding ground, not as a training ground.
1. Nashville SC
Record: 10-9-9 (39 pts), currently 9th
Schedule: vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Charleston, at Atlanta, vs. New York, at Richmond, vs. Toronto, vs. Cincinnati
FC Cincinnati has exterminated a lot of ghosts this season. The Orange & Blue managed to claim their first victories over Charleston and Tampa Bay this year. They have also beaten Louisville and Charlotte after losses to both earlier.
However, there is one ghost they have not been able to bust—the enigma known as Matt Pickens.
Over the past two years, Pickens has had Cincinnati’s name. His Tampa Bay Rowdies squad eliminated FCC in the 2016 U.S. Open Cup and the 2017 USL Playoffs. While he may not have been the sole reason for the victories, Pickens only gave up one goal against FCC in four games as a Rowdie.
Pickens has only gotten better with the change of scenery. In 24 starts for Nashville SC, Pickens has conceded only 19 goals. His 12 clean sheets put him second in the USL and are already better than his numbers from last year. His 67 saves also puts him at fourth in the East. Over three seasons against Cincinnati (6 games), Pickens has never lost, giving up only two goals (3-3-0).
That solid wall in front of Pickens just adds to the frustration FCC fans have had with Nashville. While the offense has not been at Cincinnati’s level, forwards Brandon Allen, Ropapa Mensah, Alan Winn, and Tucker Hume have the potential to crack defenses. The team has shown that it is unafraid of the large Cincinnati crowds, which may be the kryptonite for an upset in the Queen City.
Most importantly, of the teams that are trying to make the playoffs, Nashville has the best record when it comes to playing the Top 4 (2-4-1). NSC is one of only two teams to have beaten the Riverhounds in Pittsburgh, and their only loss was a Week 1 loss at Louisville. Considering the team also has a U.S. Open Cup victory over an MLS side, the potential for a Music City upset is there.
Of course, they must make the playoffs first, and they’ll need to face FCC once more to do so.
Which team outside of the Top 4 terrifies you the most in a potential first-round matchup? Let us know what you think!