23,114 people turned out to see FC Cincinnati take on Valencia CF at Nippert Stadium. The end result was 2-0, but the real number to care about is 22. Coach Alan Koch knew Monday was about getting men on the field, twenty-two in total, not about the end scoreline.
“It was awesome for our men to play against a world class team,” said Koch. “There’s no shame to losing to them tonight; we knew it was an exercise.”
FC Cincinnati’s offense began early on with a corner kick from Jimmy McLaughlin in the first five minutes of the match, leading to a back and forth of defensive play. At the ten minute mark, Valencia headed a corner toward Mitch for his first save of the match, but allowing another corner. After a double header back toward the goal, Mitch denied again, and the Bailey made their onscreen appearance with chants of “Mitch Says No.” Mitch would spend only thirty minutes of the match on the pitch, but came away with multiple saves.
With momentum swinging back the other way, FC Cincinnati threaded the needle through the more skilled La Liga squad and Dacres pushed toward the goal. A scissor kick toward the upper-90 proved to be the first solid challenge from Cincinnati’s side but a last minute save gave way to a corner that went nowhere. Valencia’s defense showed great poise at the 18th minute as Cincinnati rapped a few times on their front door, only allowing a few passes in.
Mid-way through the first half, it became clear this game belonged to the midfielders. As chants from the Bailey heated up, offensive action on the pitch slowed to a few attacks resulting in turnover and retreat. At the 30th minute mark, Alan Koch made his first substitute at keeper, exchanging Hildebrandt for Jaye.
Five minutes before the end of the first half, Cincinnati got back on the offensive, pushing into Valencia’s box to no avail. Flipping the pitch, Valencia moved into Cincinnati’s territory and a quick breakaway forced Jaye to make a punching save, before being whistled for offsides. The players got a little rough with Cincinnati fouling on an aggressive slide tackle, and De Wit getting a yellow for his takedown of Zaza. Zaza continued to push the ball into Jaye’s box, only to be called for offsides.
At the half, Koch was “excited at the chance of playing all the men,” and was enjoying the pace of the game so far, admitting the talent gap between the two leagues. But FC Cincinnati had reason to celebrate more than just the international friendly, the retirement of Omar Cummings, a Jamaican native, MLS All-star, and FCC original, was honored during the halftime festivities.
As the half began, Cummings took over at striker in his last professional game. FC Cincinnati drove an attack over the next several minutes, with no goal to show for it. Alan Koch brought on more fresh legs to try out against the Europeans, gaining valuable experience.
No goals came until about twenty minutes into the second half. Valencia with a breakaway right-center, sent Fernando “Nando” Puchades a pass out in front of Cincinnati’s Walker from the midfield. With three touches, Nando sent the ball past the line into the left corner, breaking the tie with the hometown boys. FC Cincinnati sprang right back into defensive mode sparring the ball back and forth across the midfield line with Valencia.
The game continued at this pace, with very little movement toward either goal except for a minor passing mistake or long pass, but never culminating into a result. Midfield play gave the substitute players on the pitch ample time to get some footwork and dribbling practice in, but didn’t allow FCC to break even.
As the minutes grew shorter, Cincinnati kicked into the last gear and pushed for offense in stoppage time. With time left for one more corner, Cincinnati brought Williams from his penalty area into Valencia’s, hoping an extra body may bring a lucky bounce, and a chance to draw even.
Instead, the ball bounced Valencia’s way and with a quick boot down field, Zaza beat Williams back to his box and popped the ball into the back of the net. The score was 2-0 but Zaza and Jaye exchanged a friendly hug. Shortly after the goal, the referee whistled for the end and Valencia came out atop Cincinnati, but the 2-0 score doesn’t matter.
This game was all about 22. Twenty-two of Cincinnati’s players were able to take the field against a team in a higher caliber league in an elite region; minutes add up and thirty minutes against a more technically-sound squad equals better training for the games left to be played.
Cincinnati can beat big teams; they proved it with Columbus and Chicago, but international friendlies, like today’s against Valencia, are about getting boots on the pitch and minutes on the watch. If Cincinnati wants to take the league and the cup, they’ll need to spar in midfield with elite teams without dropping a pass or leaving a man open. The experience gained from Valencia will give them the confidence needed moving forward.