Match Program: FC Cincinnati at Louisville City FC

Orange & Blue Press presents a preview of the final regular-season showdown between FC Cincinnati and defending-champion Louisville City FC.

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Design: CSDIV / Image: Joe Craven

Update: Pittsburgh is now in second place after defeating Bethlehem Steel FC 4-1 on Friday.

The final regular-season “Dirty River Derby” takes place this weekend, as FC Cincinnati visits Louisville City FC for their third match in 2018. If the cards fall a certain way, this could be the final USL game between the two sides ever. However, there is still much more at stake than merely bragging rights. A win or draw by the Orange & Blue won’t take the River Cities Cup from Lou City, but it will likely put the Eastern Conference out of reach for FCC’s rival.

Lou City has already taken the regular-season crown between the two squads, dispatching FC Cincinnati twice at Nippert this season. In their home opener, FCC was unable to score, despite owning the ball most of the match and firing 38 crosses to Lou City’s 10. The 13th-minute goal from Cameron Lancaster was all the difference in the 1-0 loss.

In their second match, Lou City’s defensive clamp on the Orange & Blue was far tighter. Goals from Lancaster and George Davis IV put the game out of reach, and FCC could not get any offense. So far, the 2-0 loss in May is the only game where FC Cincinnati was unable to get a single shot on target.

However, since that loss, the two teams’ trajectories have been slightly different. FC Cincinnati’s 2-1 victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday gives the home squad a 16-game unbeaten stretch, equaling the longest such streak in the USL this year. The win lifted Cincinnati to a 13-point lead over Lou City. It also got their newest acquisition Fanendo Adi into the scoring column with his 88th-minute strike. The Orange & Blue are officially in the playoffs for the third-straight year and are close to getting a first-round home game.

The Boys in Purple, on the other hand, are trying to claw their way back to their familiar form. The departure of coach James O’Connor to Orlando City came during a 5-match winless streak (4 draws, 1 loss). While a three-man carousel kept Lou City afloat, the arrival of new coach John Hackworth has had mixed results. Two loud road wins against Charlotte and Richmond were countered by a home loss against Toronto FC II and a draw against Charleston last week.

FC Cincinnati will be without two of their key midseason acquisitions. Both Michael Lahoud (Sierra Leone) and Pa Konate (Guinea) are abroad during international duty. FCC is also likely without defender Matt Bahner and midfielder Richie Ryan due to leg injuries. Louisville City is still awaiting results for injuries to midfielders Brian Ownby (concussion) and Magnus Rasmussen (knee).

Fast Facts

Here are five facts that should keep you satiated until the final “Dirty River Derby” on Saturday:

  • Lou City has gotten into a recent habit of dropping points at home. After winning their first five at home, Lou City has won only once in the last 7 home games (1-4-2). While their goal differential has been good on the road (+14), it is only +6 at home.
  • Goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh has started all 26 USL games in net for Lou City, but that could be affecting his numbers. Compare his stats over 26 games the past three years, and it’s apparent that opponents could be figuring him out in 2018:
    • 2016: 77.9% save percentage, 12 clean sheets, 20 goals against
    • 2017: 70.0% save percentage, 12 clean sheets, 21 goals against
    • 2018: 64.4% save percentage, 9 clean sheets, 32 goals against
  • In comparison to Ranjitsingh, Evan Newton and Spencer Richey have shown that two goalkeepers could be better than one. The two have a combined 73.2% save percentage, 11 clean sheets, and 26 goals against over 27 games. FCC had 10 clean sheets in the USL all of 2016 and only 7 last year.
  • Emmanuel Ledesma is proving to be a solid MVP candidate, leading FC Cincinnati in goals and assists. However, Lou City has a gold-caliber contender of their own. Forward Cameron Lancaster leads the league with 18 goals and is the only player in the USL with over 1,000 minutes who averages under 90 minutes a goal. At this current clip, Lancaster will score 24 goals this year and break the record of 22 set in 2015 by Matt Fondy (who also played for Lou City).
  • DID YOU KNOW? A win or draw by FC Cincinnati would match Lou City’s longest-ever unbeaten streak of 17 games. That unbeaten streak in 2016 came to a halt on July 23rd when Lou City lost 2-0 to—you guessed it—FC Cincinnati.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s possible final match against Louisville City.

FC Cincinnati 2-0 Tampa Bay Rowdies: Bonus Track

Image: Joe Craven

The Bonus Track segment is an abridged version of Orange & Blue Press’ Deeper Cuts series. It takes one or two components of a recent match and breaks it down in more detail.

The FC Cincinnati faithful were rewarded Saturday evening with as solid a display of 90 minutes of fútbol as we’ve seen this season. FCC created the best chances in the first half and went on to dominate the second half, resulting in a 2-0 blanking of the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The first win in five attempts versus the iconic American soccer franchise keeps the Orange & Blue atop the table.

The Orange & Blue Laundromat

Since the MLS announcement was made in late May, FCC has rolled off an eight-match USL unbeaten streak. Possibly even more impressive in this time frame are the five clean sheets the club has collectively earned, including three straight. Evan Newton and his back line have apparently opened a laundromat, specializing in clean sheets. They have not allowed a goal in over 285 minutes, the second-longest stretch in club history.

Newton now has 7 clean sheets in 15 USL starts this season. He has improved his goals against average to 0.87 goals per match and a save percentage of 75%. These statistics only trail Matt Pickens (Nashville SC) and Daniel Lynd (Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC) this season.

A key component to last night’s clean sheet can be seen in tackles won and lost between the two teams. FCC won an astounding 94% of their tackles (16 of 17 tackles won) as compared to the Rowdies 70% (7 of 10). The Orange & Blue captain Dekel Keinan led the team with four successful tackles. Blake Smith and Kenney Walker closely followed with three each. The physical and resolute FCC defense limited the Rowdies attack to only three shots on target, all by Jamaican international Junior Flemmings.

The Beauty in the Build-up

Goals win matches and are typically what we savor in highlight packages. However, sometimes the teamwork that creates the opportunity surpasses the final touch and celebration. The beauty in the build-up to both FCC goals is deserving of further accolades and breakdown.

First, let’s deconstruct the creative build-up that led to the opening goal of the match. The scoring opportunity starts at midfield with Forrest Lasso playing a ball to a wide open Corben Bone along the left flank. The overlap, spatial awareness, and interplay between Bone and Blake Smith creates the necessary space for Bone to deliver a sublime in-swinging cross to Emmanuel Ledesma’s head. The June USL player of the month out-jumps two defenders and converts his ninth goal of the season.

The lightning-quick counterattack resulting in the second goal may have been even more stunning. In the 84th minute, Bone cleverly controls the ball off his chest and taps it forward to Danni König. König drops a pass to Nazmi Albadawi, who spots Emery Welshman. Welshman, who just entered the match, receives the pass in stride and quickly draws two defenders down the field. The Canadian forward lays a perfectly-weighted through-ball to the trailing Dane. König drills the wonderfully timed pass with his left foot inside the cross bar to equal Ledesma with his ninth of the season.

Arguably two of the best team goals we’ve seen in 2018.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for a busy week of coverage as FCC hosts the Charlotte Independence on Wednesday and the New York Red Bulls II squad on Saturday.

Midseason Review: Keys to First Half Success and Questions for the Next 17

Midseason Review: How FC Cincinnati’s first half of 2018 stacks up against previous years, attendance, MVP, and key questions for the second half.

FC Cincinnati is destined for the first division of U.S Soccer in 2019. With their MLS future finally decided, a reasonable person might ask, “How much does the 2018 USL season really matter?”

It matters quite a lot if you consider the words of FC Cincinnati’s manager and front office. Both Alan Koch and Jeff Berding have stated a clear ambition to finish their third and final USL season on top. FC Cincinnati’s head coach said the following at the MLS announcement at Fountain Square on May 29th.

“We still have an amazing season ahead of us this year, and we want to finish that off in style.”

So far, so good.

How 2018 Stacks Up

FC Cincinnati currently sits on top of the Eastern Conference after 17 matches played, the halfway point of the 2018 season. Their position on top is not new. They’ve gone into each of their last 10 USL matches in either first or second place in the Eastern Conference.

Even though the Pittsburgh Riverhounds can match FC Cincinnati’s midseason point total by winning their two games in hand, FCC’s current standing bodes well. In 2016 and 2017, the team’s ranking at the halfway point was a good predictor of where the Orange & Blue would finish the regular season.

At the midway point in 2016, FCC had just beaten Bethlehem Steel FC, the final positive result in an 11 game unbeaten streak. They stood in third place with a 9-2-4 record and 31 points. That season they finished the regular season in third, but fell in the first round of the playoffs to the Charleston Battery.

At the midway point of a less successful 2017 season, FCC drew Orlando City B in Florida. They were 5-5-6 at that point with 21 points, good enough for seventh place in the East. They finished last season just one place ahead of that in sixth, and again crashed out in the first round of the USL playoffs, this time to Tampa Bay.

Comparing the first half of FCC’s three seasons:
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It’s worth noting that the length of the USL schedule was extended each of the past two years; in 2017 the season was 32 games, and in 2016 it was 30.

So their current first place standing is a good omen. They also have talent, depth, and MLS momentum, but there is a lot of soccer to be played.

Attendance

It wouldn’t be an FC Cincinnati article without some attendance talk. FCC is averaging 24,953 in paid attendance through half of the 2018 season. That’s up almost 18% from last year. They currently boast the fifth highest attendance of professional soccer teams in the U.S. and Canada behind Atlanta United, the Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, and the LA Galaxy.

First Half MVP

This is a short conversation. The first 17 games have produced some great moments, supplied by a variety of players, but Emmanuel Ledesma has been a class above the rest. He leads the team (and the USL) in assists with 8, and is tied with Danni König for the most team goals, also at 8. Ledesma also leads FCC in chances created (30), shots (36), shots on target (19), fouls won (26), and crosses (42). He’s had a goal or assist in 9 of the 17 games so far this season. Ledesma can boast 5 USL team of the week selections and 1 USL player of the week award. He’s got a good shot at USL MVP if he can keep up the pace.

Keys to First Half Success

Outside of the heroic contributions of Emmanuel Ledesma, the following highlights tell the story of the first 17 games.

Evan Newton

Early in 2018, the offense hadn’t gelled and goals were hard to come by. It took two heroic performances by Evan Newton to earn maximum points on the road against Charleston and Indy Eleven. FCC probably shouldn’t have won either of those games, and their midseason record might not look quite as rosy without those points. The three-time USL Save of the Week winner has the ability to make stops that change the outcome of games. The defense hasn’t been as airtight recently, but fans have good reason to feel confident with Newton in the net coming down the stretch.

Road Form

Perhaps the most standout feature of the first 17 games has been the road form of FC Cincinnati. Alan Koch’s “road warriors” are 6-1-2 in a travel-heavy first half of the season. The single game they lost was the 4-1 drubbing they took in Charlotte, which looks like an aberration at this point.

Squad Depth

In addition to fine road form, the depth of the squad has stood out. The team has been able to overcome injuries to Tyler Gibson, Kenney Walker, and Evan Newton. They’ve also dealt with yellow card suspensions to Keinan, Lasso, and Ledesma. Most recently against Ottawa, Mike Lahoud stepped in as the holding midfielder for the injured Richie Ryan, and was one of the best players on the field. Few USL teams can compete with FCC in terms of the strength of the 18 they can put out each week.

Hydra Attack

The team boasts 9 different goalscorers and 8 different players with assists. Early in the season, a “score from anywhere” offense was the hallmark of the Orange & Blue’s strategy. As the season has progressed, however, there’s been a shift to the goals being more concentrated with the attacking players: Ledesma, König, Welshman, and Albadawi.

Questions for the Next 17

A lot can change after the next 17 games, and FC Cincinnati will have to continue to absorb every team’s best shot if they want to stay on top of the heap. That quest starts this Saturday, July 7th, against Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium. The answers to the following questions will go a long way toward determining FCC’s end of season success.

Can they improve their home record?

Only dropping 1 of 9 games on the road is pretty insane. Results away from Nippert in the second half  will likely drop off, at least a little. However, home form has been average up until now (4-2-2), so there’s a good chance if they can pick things up at Nippert, any second half dip in road results can be offset at home. They need to take better advantage of a Nippert Stadium that should be packed for the rest of the season.

Will MLS expansion become a distraction?

A lot of news will hit the press between now and October about next season and the team’s rise to Major League Soccer. There’s also a lot to be done by the coaching staff behind the scenes to get ready. Although technical director Luke Sassano will do a lot of the heavy lifting, Alan Koch will certainly need to be involved in the decision making. Could the attention required and distractions to the players negatively affect results? The team did a good job of managing the MLS circus during the first half of the season. That will have to continue.

Can the defense keep things cleaner?

FC Cincinnati’s offense is really ticking, and they currently lead USL in goals scored with 35. However, over a third of the teams in the USL have conceded fewer goals than FCC. The Orange & Blue have conceded 21 goals, or 1.2 goals per game. Compare that to the second place Pittsburgh Riverhounds, at 0.47 goals per game; or Nashville SC at 0.67 goals per game. Those teams can’t compete with FCC’s offense, but the defense will need to be stingier to capture a top seed in the playoffs. There’s reason to be optimistic though. They’ve kept clean sheets in 3 of their last 5 games.

Can Ledesma stay this hot?

Emmanuel Ledesma has been on fire. While there’s no signs of him slowing down, increased production by others in the second half might be required to maintain the top spot. Nazmi Albadawi looks primed to fill the role. The Raleigh, NC native is picking up steam and has 6 goals in his last 8 league outings.

Can FCC peak at the right time?

USL, like MLS, is obviously a playoff league. They could get the answer right to all of the questions above, and if they aren’t in peak form at playoff time, the hard work can go out the window in one game. That’s the nature for American sports. Doing everything possible to stay healthy and be at peak form for the playoffs is critical.

Midfielder Mike Lahoud said the following about the team’s performance in the first half of the season.

“We’re content with the body of work, but we’re not satisfied. We haven’t won anything yet. This is the halfway point, and you get zero trophies for being in first place halfway. We’re moving toward something tangible, and from here on out, it’s a downhill slalom.”

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for the second half of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season.

North Carolina FC 0 – 2 FC Cincinnati: Bonus Track

We take a look at how momentum swung between the teams during FC Cincinnati’s 2-0 victory at North Carolina FC.

Image: Ryan Meyer

The Bonus Track segment is an abridged version of Orange & Blue Press’ Deeper Cuts series. It takes one or two components of a recent match and breaks them down in more detail.

We may be 13 games into FC Cincinnati’s season, but the halfway point of the away schedule is just about here. Save for the hiccup against Charlotte, the team has been rock-solid on the road. The 2-0 clean sheet at North Carolina FC was their sixth road win in eight USL games. Throw in the US Open Cup win on the road against Pittsburgh last month, and FCC has enjoyed their best nine-game road stretch ever (7-1-1).

The more surprising number from the team’s road dominance might be how well the defense is playing. In eight road games, FCC has a +6 goal differential and four clean sheets. However, in five home games, FCC has only a +2 goal differential and zero clean sheets. The numbers might be askew due to facing Louisville there twice already. It also helps that Evan Newton is back to form, as he’s had three of those four away shutouts.

Tale of Four Quarters

The unique 90-minute time limit makes typical soccer games easy to follow. A team will usually show up for one half and disappear in the next, or vice versa. This one felt more like a basketball game, as advantage seemed to swing between teams in the middle of each half.

The game probably wouldn’t have gone the way of the Orange & Blue had it not been for the hot conditions. NCFC fired the first six shots of the game before FCC could muster any offense. Had it not been for solid play by Paddy Barrett and Forrest Lasso, NCFC would have been on the board early.

The hydration break at the 26th minute gave the team a chance to cool down and get their bearings. FC Cincinnati was visibly rattled by their slow start. Manu Ledesma was flashed a yellow card just prior to the break due to a delay in play. After the H2O, FCC controlled possession, shots on net, and goals for the rest of the half. Despite the disparity in shots in the first half (5-8), most from NCFC came from a distance and in the first 25 minutes. FCC used control in the midfield to eventually lead to shots—and Danni König’s goal—inside the box later in the half.

The halftime break reset momentum, as NCFC obtained more control to swing the overall possession numbers in their favor (52% vs. FCC’s 48%). NCFC fired seven shots in the first 30 minutes of the second half to FCC’s one lone shot. However, the defense was instrumental during this stretch, helping FCC lead the half in interceptions (11-5) and clearances (14-7).

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Interceptions (left) and clearances (right) by NCFC (black) and FCC (green) in the 2nd half.

The key substitution—Jimmy McLaughlin coming on for Russell Cicerone in the 73rd minute—basically iced the game. Both teams had six shots after this sub, but FCC’s shots were accurate and at a shorter distance. Four of the six were on target, while only two of NCFC’s shots were on target.

Quality, Not Quantity

That’s the basic summary of this game. FCC used a combination of well-timed clearances and Newton’s hot hand in their half to keep many of NCFC’s 20 shots off-target or from way outside the box. On the other hand, FCC managed to penetrate the box for higher accuracy and success.

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Shot chart for FCC (green) and NCFC (black).

Considering that FCC was without a few key players due to Wednesday’s 120-minute affair, the result couldn’t have been better. Let’s see if Alan Koch’s men can ride out their most congested portion of the schedule with wins at home.

Follow Orange & Blue Press for this week’s coverage of the upcoming games against Bethlehem Steel FC and the Richmond Kickers.

North Carolina FC 0 – 2 FC Cincinnati: The Orange & Blue Blank the Dead Whales

FC Cincinnati returned to USL league play by blanking North Carolina FC 2-0. FCC is now 6-1-1 on the road and has secured four clean sheets away from Nippert this season.

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Graphic: Connor Paquette / Image: JES Photography

FC Cincinnati continued their torrid road pace by blanking North Carolina FC 2-0 in Cary, NC on Saturday. This is FCC’s fourth clean sheet on the road this season; the third by Evan Newton in nine starts. FCC moves to 26 points (8-3-2 record) with the win and solidifies their Eastern Conference leadership position. They are now 8-1-2 against anyone not named Louisville City.

The “Dead Whales” from North Carolina FC played a livelier match than three weeks ago and out-shot FCC 20 to 12. However, the Orange & Blue were able to strike fifty percent of their shots on target, while NCFC could only place twenty-five percent of their shots on frame. NCFC pushed the festivities over the first 26 minutes. Fortunately, a hydration break was called, allowing FCC to regroup and climb back into the match.

In the 37th minute Russell Cicerone, making his first USL start of the season, created the opening highlight for FC Cincinnati. He beat one defender on the dribble, then cut the ball inside firing a bullet on goal. North Carolina FC’s Greek keeper, Alex Tambakis, made a fine save but his punch went straight into the air. Danish forward Danni König was in perfect position salivating to get his head on his sixth tally of the season and 17th overall. Danni is now FC Cincinnati’s all-time leading goal-scorer, moving one ahead of Sean Okoli and Djiby. Here is the history making moment.

The second half started in a similar fashion with North Carolina FC pressing and searching for the equalizer. The Orange & Blue absorbed pressure most of the second half before they found a second. Except . . . the offside flag was raised and Emery Welshman, who entered the match two minutes earlier, had a goal disallowed. FCC found their two goal cushion three minutes later when fellow second-half substitute Jimmy McLaughlin put his name on the score sheet. He cleaned up some fine work by Nazmi Albadawi and Welshman, finding the back of the net.

Although the glamour always goes to the goal scorers, special mention must go to the defense for securing the win. Evan Newton made save-after-save and the entire back line helped to deliver the clean sheet. Lasso and Barrett were especially good in the middle of defense deflecting, clearing, and heading out any enemy foray. This center-back duo now has four wins in four attempts. FCC’s depth at this position has proved vital to the team’s success this season.

Final Score: North Carolina FC 0 – 2 FC Cincinnati

Key Events

26′ – YELLOW CARD – CIN – Emmanuel Ledesma
37′ – GOAL – CIN – Danni König
52′ – YELLOW CARD – CIN – Danni König
72′ – YELLOW CARD – CIN – Justin Hoyte
87′ – GOAL – CIN – Jimmy McLaughlin

Match Notes

Alan Koch continued to use the club’s deep roster to his advantage. Although Corben Bone was initially listed as a starter, Michael Lahoud instead joined Richie Ryan in the defensive midfield. The biggest roster move though came in the form of Russell Cicerone getting a start. His eagerness to take on defenders and ability to get wide on the right impacted the match mightily.

FCC will be without playmaker Emmanuel Ledesma for the next match as he picked up his fifth yellow of the season in the first half. What appeared to be a normal FCC corner kick led to fan behavior that Manu took offense to. When the corner kick was not taken in a timely fashion, the match official brandished a yellow card for delay. Justin Hoyte also picked up a yellow card for time wasting in the second half when he hesitated on a throw-in.

Starting XI

König (82′ Welshman)
Ledesma – Albadawi – Cicerone (McLaughlin 73′)
Lahoud (61′ Bone) – Ryan
Smith – Lasso – Barrett – Hoyte
Newton

What’s Next?

FC Cincinnati returns home for two matches next week at Nippert Stadium. First, they face an in-form Bethlehem Steel FC squad on Wednesday. That match is followed by the season’s first contest against the Richmond Kickers on Saturday, June 16th.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more analysis of Saturday’s result and continued coverage of another busy week for FC Cincinnati.

North Carolina 6.9_Match Recap

FC Cincinnati 0 – 2 Louisville City FC: Deeper Cuts

It wasn’t pretty to look at in person, but we attempt to digest FCC’s one-sided 2-0 loss to Louisville City.

Image: JES Photography

While FC Cincinnati is still in a better place in the standings after their second home loss to Louisville City this year, suddenly the picture is not so rosy. The Orange & Blue are now behind their form from 2016. This season they stand at 6-2-3 (20 pts), one point behind their pace from their first season (6-3-2, 21 pts).

The confidence is still there in the team, but this feels like the definition of madness. This loss may sting more, but it resembled their first loss. An early first-half goal from Cameron Lancaster forced the team to struggle to make up the difference. By the time the offense came to life, Louisville’s pressure had converted a deflected shot into the net.

With this year’s Dirty River Derby all but decided, let’s take a deeper look at Cincinnati’s difficult home loss.

Defensive Miscues

Defensively, this game could have easily been as much a clean sheet as it could have been a second-half blowout. The two goals conceded by FCC were due to Lancaster’s free kick sneaking through an unprotected wall and an unlucky, but bad deflection off Matt Bahner’s leg. If it wasn’t for Evan Newton getting big late in the second half, the score could have easily been worse.

Newton managed to show some flashes from the first two games of the season during the match, making five saves in net. However, we’re starting to see lapses and trends in the defense that could cause concerns against better teams. A +5 goal differential is still decent in this league after 11 games, but that’s more from the spike in offense. The defense is projected to give up 46 goals, not too far from the 48 given up last year.

The zero shots on target should be a concern, but it’s likely more a demonstration of Louisville’s ability to keep the ball away. Only three teams in the Eastern Conference have faced less shots than Lou City (28) so far this season, and only two—Pittsburgh and Indy—have given up less goals. FCC, on the other hand, has already faced 45 shots this year, sixth-worst in the conference.

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Shot chart for Louisville (green) and FCC (black)

A strong offense is a remedy for a shaky defense, but when that’s gone, a scoreless draw is harder to preserve. Until the defense can control the number of shots taken, the clean sheets will be far and few.

Up-field Disconnection

As much as the defense was off its game, the zero shots on target should be circled in red. FCC actually had more shots on target than Lou City in the first matchup this season. This time around, there seemed to be a lack of connection between the midfield and forwards, and the number of chances created by the offense heavily favored Louisville (10-6).

The overall heat maps show that Lou City’s offense-heavy formation produced more penetration, but perhaps that alone doesn’t show the disconnect. The pressure from Lou City forced the FCC midfield to make mistakes they couldn’t recover. The ball rarely reached König or Ledesma in the front third of the field. Quick math indicates that the front six for FCC had just as many successful passes per player as the front seven for Louisville. However, FCC had also two extra unsuccessful passes per player.

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FCC’s heat maps for midfielders (left) and forwards (right).
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Louisville’s heat maps for midfielders (left) and forwards (right).

The heat maps above show just how much distribution the Louisville City midfielders and forwards maintained. In comparison, FCC’s forwards got very little opportunity to handle the ball.

The frustration was obvious at halftime, but the team was unable to overcome James O’Connor’s system. Louisville’s cohesion has dictated play this season, and their solid roster has made it easier to focus on their opponent. Since the 3-2 upset at Slugger Field last year, the Orange & Blue have been outscored 8-0 over the last three games.

With Louisville out of the way until September, FCC has time to figure out O’Connor’s system. However, the U.S. Open Cup only adds to the workload—FCC must now play five meaningful games over the next 20 days. This first comes on Saturday at New York Red Bulls II, where they have yet to get a point.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for coverage of this week’s impending MLS announcement and next Saturday’s match at New York.

USL Eastern Conference Snapshot

With four weeks of the USL regular season in the books, let’s take a snapshot of the Eastern Conference, acknowledge the leaders, and highlight the surprises.

Periodically this season, Orange & Blue Press will take a snapshot and recap major USL Eastern Conference happenings with an eye on FC Cincinnati’s competition and postseason run.

If you’ve been solely focused on FC Cincinnati so far this season, you may have missed all the offseason USL changes. The Eastern Conference expanded to sixteen teams this season. Joining MLS bound Nashville SC are FCC’s new I-74 rival and former NASL side Indy Eleven, North Carolina FC (formerly the NASL Carolina Railhawks), and the Atlanta United 2 squad. The Harrisburg City Islanders re-branded as Penn FC. Both the Rochester Rhinos and Orlando City B teams are taking a hiatus. Additionally, Saint Louis FC has moved to the Western Conference. In typical U.S. sports fashion, one-half of the sixteen USL Eastern Conference teams will make the playoffs.

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2018 USL Conference Alignment

Four Weeks In

The opening few weeks have had no shortage of action and early season drama. Here are three early-season takeaways:

  • The defending USL champions, Louisville City FC, are still the side to beat in 2018. James O’Connor has his squad playing compact and efficient soccer. They have already beaten and blanked playoff hopefuls Nashville SC, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and FC Cincinnati.
  • Two USL Player of the Month (“POTM”) honorees for March come from the East. First, the ageless Colombian Jorge Herrera netted four goals for the Charlotte Independence. Next, FCC’s Evan Newton has already taken home two USL save of the week honors and was just chosen the fans USL save of the month. Through the end of fan voting Monday, Newton tallied the most POTM fan votes, but this makes up only 51% of the poll. The USL Technical Committee (25%) and USL National Media Panel (24%) ballots round out the equation. Final results will be announced on Thursday.
  • As seen in the Eastern Conference tables below, separation is already occurring between the hopefuls and the laggards. Three teams have failed to earn a point – North Carolina FC, TFCII, and Ottawa Fury F.C, although it is still early in the season.

Surprises

The surprise developments over the first few weeks of action include:

  • Charlotte Independence, the “Jacks” as their fanbase refer to them, unexpectedly sits in 3rd place overall with 7 points. Charlotte came out of the gate in full stride winning their first two 2018 contests. The Jacks have started to roll back down the hill with only one point earned in their past two matches. Could their hot start be the result of early season winnable home fixtures?
  • Tommy Heinemann, the dynamic striker FC Cincinnati signed and then released, joined Penn FC on March 29th. Tommy notched his first goal for the newly branded side on Sunday, but his mysterious start to the 2018 season continued as he was subbed off in the 49th minute. There appeared to be no apparent contact but he raised his hand and limped off the pitch. Where will this intriguing story go next?
  • Nashville SC’s home attendance. The Fighting Six Strings drew a very strong crowd of 18,922 to their USL home opener at Nissan Stadium. However, this past weekend they could only find 7,487 fans in the Nashville market to fill the seats at First Tennessee Park (capacity of 10,000). That’s disappointing second home game support from the MLS starlet.

Conference Leaders

Table Watch

Orange and Blue Press writer Geoff Tebbetts took a shot at his prognostication abilities last month in 2018 USL Season Preview: Five Teams to Challenge FCC. Let’s check-in and see how his analysis is faring by looking at the standings based on points per match. The teams he tipped look pretty good so far, with Louisville, Tampa, Indy, and FCC all in the top 4.

Stay tuned for additional Orange and Blue Press coverage and analytical insight as we gear up for the Bethlehem Steel FC match.

Indy Eleven 0 – 1 FC Cincinnati: Deeper Cuts

More insights on FC Cincinnati’s victory in Indy, including Newton’s 4th Law, the impact of FCC’s fullbacks, and another display of character.

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Photo Credit: JES Photography

Attention Cincinnati, this is no April Fool’s joke! FC Cincinnati has won back-to-back shutout road matches for the first time in their young history, and they’ve done it in style. In front of 1200+ jubilant traveling fans, the Orange & Blue earned the full three points in their 1-0 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium. They also helped Indy Eleven set a new club record attendance of 17,535.

Although this match carried all the same ingredients and grit as the away win at Charleston, there is also a different feeling to the result and this team. Let’s roll the tape…

Evan Almighty

It’s only two games into the season and we might run out of superlatives to describe Evan Newton’s sensational play. He is truly inventing the 4th Law of Motion in front of our very eyes. Having labored through engineering school, I’ve never been so happy as I am now to witness a physics experiment and pen a lab report. Evan Newton’s 4th Law of Motion is simply defined as repelling a certain round object in the field of play from crossing the magic line.

Newton spread his six saves evenly across both halves of play, but it was his double save in the 40th minute that earned him his second Man of the Match (MOTM) honors. Guessing correctly on the penalty kick, he followed up the initial block with a sublime foot save to stop Ben Speas strike after the rebound.

Wall of Defense

Even with the exploits of our phenomenal keeper, this was the definition of a team win and it took a wall of defense to secure all three points. The back line of Hoyte, Keinan, Lasso, and Smith may feature as the defensive unit on the formation chart, but it takes all ten field players (and three substitutes) to earn a clean sheet. Legendary pigskin football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant famously said, “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.” If this is true, FC Cincinnati may have found the winning formula.

After the Charleston victory, we took a peek at FCC’s center back pairing. Today, let’s highlight the outstanding performance of the fullbacks, Justin Hoyte and Blake Smith. In the first two charts below, we see the Indy Eleven’s heatmap and touchmap for the full contest. In particular, these show how the home team concentrated play and attacked along the narrow flanks.

All stats and graphic courtesy USL / Opta

In contrast, look at the defensive and pass distribution chart for Hoyte and Smith. It illustrates how they combated Indy’s penetrating surges and touches. Without these multi-disciplined players being in position, making timely stops, covering the weak side, and acting as an outlet from the back, the scoreline would certainly have been different in Indy.

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Distribution and defensive events from Hoyte and Smith

Another key to victory was FC Cincinnati’s defensive shape. They kept Indy Eleven’s shot selection, specifically in the second half, limited to outside the 18-yard box or attempts from wide angles. Except for Netwon’s tip over the crossbar in the closing minutes, Indy Eleven never really threatened to find the equalizer.

Character

Now let’s delve into what is different about this 2018 FCC team on the pitch from seasons past – character. Upon each signing in the offseason, we heard over-and-over again about the quality of character of the players Coach Koch was bringing into the side. The mental toughness and resolve this side has displayed over the first two matches, particularly in hostile away venues, is encouraging. Yes, they are paid to do a job, but in today’s professional sports it is refreshing to see a group of players proverbially leaving it all on the pitch.

There are many individual examples of this throughout the team, but Will Seymore is deserving of special mention. He stepped off the bench in the 17th minute to fill in for Kenney Walker. Indy Eleven’s Jack McInerney injured Walker with a harsh tackle in the first few minutes of action. On the road, FCC could have wilted, but Will stepped in and the team didn’t miss a beat.

As always, the players never miss a chance to applaud and engage with their passionate fans and that accessibility continues to endear this city to the club, and vice versa.

Coming out of the gates with two wins, two clean sheets, and all six points is the perfect way to start the season. With the inaugural “War for 74” in the rearview mirror, it’s now time for the Dirty River Derby against Louisville City. Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for all of your upcoming FC Cincinnati coverage.

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Charleston Battery 0-1 FC Cincinnati: Deeper Cuts

FC Cincinnati’s bend-not-break defense, stellar goalkeeping, and substitute strategies against Charleston.

Photo credit: Ross Almers Photography

The monkey is finally off of FC Cincinnati’s back as the team started their 2018 campaign with a 1-0 away win over Charleston Battery, obtaining their first win over Charleston in six tries and their first points against the Battery on the road. The Orange & Blue broke through in the first half with a hard-fought Blake Smith goal, then heavily depended on the defense to make that lead last to the end. Here’s what stood out after the first big test of the season.

Bending Without Breaking

At the 35th-minute mark, both teams had taken five shots, with Cincinnati getting better looks at the goal than Charleston. Lance Laing and Emery Welshman had great shots on frame before Blake’s goal, and it took a sprawling save from Odisnel Cooper to deny a beautiful Manu Ledesma free kick outside the box.

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Shots after 35 minutes: FCC (left) vs. CHB (right). Source: USL

The next ten minutes became a sudden undoing, as Charleston completely reversed field, taking five of the next six shots. The second half didn’t reverse much of the momentum either, as Charleston possessed the ball for much of the second half and enjoyed a heavy advantage in shots over the full 90-plus minutes. Charleston’s 24 shots were the second most from a team this weekend (Red Bulls II fired 31 at Toronto FC II), and Cincinnati’s 9 shots were the fewest for a team that won.

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Shots after 90 minutes: FCC (left) vs. CHB (right). Source: USL

The good news is that the defensive line, a concern in the offseason, stepped up to the task. Forrest Lasso and Dekel Keinan snuffed out eight of those shots between them to at least lessen the blow, and the team managed to play clear-out ball for much of the game (33 clearances to Charleston’s 8). Smith’s goal also showed that scoring from the back line could be the key to an improved scoring team.

Newton’s Law

There is no doubt that Evan Newton was the man of the match, filling some enormous gloves in his first minutes as the FCC goalkeeper. While Cooper was challenged early on the Charleston side, the Battery could have won this game comfortably if Newton hadn’t made himself big in goal, making five saves for the clean sheet.

Two of Newton’s saves came as a result of the keeper filling out his form in two different situations. He blocked a low shot from forward Ian Svantesson in the 39th minute that he likely didn’t see from the screens in the box, forced to fill a hole that couldn’t be patched by all the defensemen in the box. Newton then stretched high to deny Svantesson a header in the 66th minute, absorbing a shot from the goalpost as a reward.

However, Newton’s sprawling save in the 40th minute on a shot by Kotaro Higashi might be Save of the Week stuff.

This is just the first game of the season, but it’s definitely a confidence-builder to see Newton displaying the ability that helped Sacramento upset Real Monarchs in the playoffs last season. Newton produced five saves or more three times last year, but did not win any of those games. The question will likely be if Koch opts to play the hot hand or if he gives Spencer Richey a start to see if he can play at the same level.

Subtle Substitutes

For the first thirty minutes, the offense couldn’t have gone better for Cincinnati, but once the Charleston midfield started to control the ball and connect passes, their use of two forwards started to push possession constantly in Cincinnati’s half. Svantesson got plenty more looks in front of goal than FCC’s lone striker, and that pressure forced Cincinnati to dump passes out and deflect shots for corner kicks (10 for Charleston to Cincinnati’s 3).

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Striker heat map comparison between FCC (left) and CHB (right). Source: USL

With the team looking tired, Koch made some interesting moves to change momentum just enough in the second half. Having left Tomi Ameobi off the roster for the first game, Koch replaced Welshman with Danni König, who hadn’t seen any legitimate preseason minutes since the February 27th match against NKU. Koch then opted to later use Will Seymore as a replacement for Corben Bone, while Nazmi Albadawi remained on the bench.

While König and Seymore didn’t produce goals during their minutes, they did halt Charleston’s momentum just enough to keep the score where it was. Seymore won some vital fouls late in the game to reverse the field and almost scored on a heading pass from König. Meanwhile, König managed to get into his defender’s head late in the game, drawing a red card on Quinton Griffith during a foul to deplete Charleston’s arsenal.

Those rolls of the dice worked for Koch this time around, but it also shows that the coach has some initial confidence in spreading the minutes around. Resting the likes of Ameobi and Albadawi in a game that meant a lot for a retooled FC Cincinnati felt like a risky calculation, but three points before an early bye week should give Koch some time to figure out what worked while scouting Indy for their March 31st game.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue press for coverage of FC Cincinnati as they prepare for their next match.

FC Cincinnati 1 – 2 Sacramento Republic FC: A Disappointing Finish to the Preseason

In a preseason match between MLS hopefuls, FC Cincinnati loses 2-1 to Sacramento Republic FC at Nippert Stadium.

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Graphic: Connor Paquette

At the end of the preseason schedule last year, FC Cincinnati made their first trip to the West Coast and scratched out a last-second 2-2 draw against Sacramento Republic FC. With both teams waiting for MLS to make an expansion call, FC Cincinnati played the role of the hosts to close out this year’s preseason.

Unfortunately for the Orange & Blue, they could not duplicate last year’s performance, falling 2-1 to the Republic at Nippert Stadium.

Sacramento had most of the offensive control early in the match, applying pressure in the FCC half for the majority of the first period. Evan Newton was challenged a few times by his former team and appeared to have left the net open in the 18th minute, only for Sacramento forward Cameron Iwasa to muff the shot.

While FCC was laboring to get their passes to connect, Sacramento took advantage of their possession. Midfielder Kevin Aléman got a shot on Newton in the box in the 33rd minute, only for the save to be deflected to Iwasa for an easy rebound to make the score 1-0.

After the goal, Cincinnati appeared to get their bearings, as runs by Corben Bone and Justin Hoyte applied more pressure to Sacramento’s defense. A late first-half header by Forrest Lasso was swung aside by Sacramento’s Josh Cohen with a fingertip save, keeping the score 1-0 at halftime.

The second half led to a bit more physical play from both teams, as FCC tried to pressure the midfield for possession, only for incidental contact with Sacramento to twice halt the momentum. FCC’s best chance, a Jimmy McLaughlin breakaway in the 68th minute, was snuffed out by a fine save by Cohen.

Sacramento increased the lead to 2-0 in the 72nd minute. Kenney Walker was unable to clear out a ball in the defensive half, and after a series of pinballing deflections, midfielder Villyan Bijev fired a shot from the left that snuck under Newton’s sprawling effort to save.

FCC finally made it a game in the 84th minute. A Daniel Haber corner kick sailed high to the left of the box, where Dekel Keinan looped a header past Cohen. Sacramento managed to salt much of the remaining time away, despite a chance by Ameobi to tie it up late, giving the Republic the 2-1 final score.

Key Events

33′ – SRFC GOAL – Cameron Iwasa (assisted by Kevin Aléman)
72′ – SRFC GOAL – Villyan Bijev (unassisted)
84′ – FCC GOAL – Dekel Keinan (assisted by Daniel Haber)

Yellow cards
20′ – Forrest Lasso (FCC)
25′ – Cole Seiler (SRFC)
61′ – Emmanuel Ledesma (FCC)

Match Notes

FC Cincinnati suffered its first loss of the seven-game preseason (4W-1L-2T), while Sacramento heads home with its second win in the preseason (2W-2L-1T). Newton gave up his first goals of the preseason, but FCC still managed to score a goal, giving the team at least one in all seven preseason games. Keinan is the only FC Cincinnati player to bag more than 1 goal. Keinan also sported the captain’s band for FCC.

Starting XI (4-2-3-1)
Newton (GK)
Hoyte – Keinan – Lasso – Smith (Bahner 77′)
Walker (Seymore 77′) – Ryan
Ledesma (Haber 73′) – Bone (Albadawi 77′) – McLaughlin
Ameobi

Of note, Lance Laing (bone bruise) and Danni Konig (back) were left off the starting roster due to injury concerns. Emery Welshman, Sem De Wit, Garrett Halfhill, Josu, and Mark Village were also left off the starting roster.

What’s Next?

The 2018 USL regular season starts next Saturday with what people should be dubbing the “Groundhog Day Derby”, as FC Cincinnati travels to South Carolina to face the Charleston Battery. Both of the past two seasons have started with one-goal losses at Charleston, but hopefully, FCC will have the luck of the Irish on their side this time for the St. Patrick’s Day tilt.

Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more images from Saturday’s match and more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season.

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