Deeper Cuts: One Down, Three to Go for FC Cincinnati

Photo by Ryan Meyer

The City of Cincinnati was able to witness a long overdue home playoff celebration at Nippert Saturday. Nervy moments over a tense evening were overcome by an exciting and jubilant 6-5 penalty kick victory by FC Cincinnati. The Orange & Blue now move onto the Eastern Conference semifinals next Saturday with a 24-game unbeaten streak in tow.

Even with the best record in the league this season, we knew the path to the 2018 USL Cup would be difficult. The single-match elimination format of the USL playoffs allows any team on a given day to be victorious. FCC’s fate could just have as easily been reversed Saturday evening. Let’s review the stellar work, the challenges, and what’s next in the playoffs for the Orange & Blue.

Stellar Goalkeeping

The Man of the Match was certainly Spencer Richey. His five saves were critical to the outcome of the match, and all were worthy of a highlight reel. Possibly a surprise to some, Richey got the starting nod over USL 2018 Golden Glove winner Evan Newton. Richey’s recent fine form proved Alan Koch’s selection was well made.

One of the strengths of this side’s strong season has certainly been its goalkeeping depth. Goalkeeper coach Jack Stern has brought an innovative and healthy competitive approach to the team’s three keepers (Newton, Richey, and Mark Village). The result has seen a remarkable improvement in the team’s goals against average (GAA) from 1.55 in 2017 down to 1.00 in 2018. In addition to Newton’s Golden Glove award, FCC’s keepers are ranked 6th in the league with 14 clean sheets and 4th best with just 35 goals conceded. We can have confidence with whichever keeper starts for the Orange & Blue.

Let’s relive one of Spencer Richey’s point blank saves from the 48th minute that kept the Orange & Blue in line to advance deeper into the playoffs.

Shooting Challenges

Uncharacteristically, especially of late, was the shooting woes the Orange & Blue incurred in the match. FC Cincinnati led the league in conversion rate this season. In Saturday’s match they scored 1 goal over 17 shots not blocked, a 5.9% conversion rate that was significantly below their season average of 21%.

In addition, one of the only statistical categories that Nashville SC were better on during the match was shooting accuracy. The visitors in yellow placed 6 shots on target, out of 16 total, for a 37.5% accuracy. Thankfully, as noted above, Richey was up to the task to save five of their six shots on target. However, FCC was only able to place 5 of 22 shots on target for an anemic 22.7% accuracy.

The following shot chart illustrates the difficulty FCC had in finding clear lanes and delivering accurate shots on the Nashville goal. The red circles and rays represent the twelve shots off target (and not blocked). The blue circle around the number 19 outside the box was Corben Bone’s clever side-step laser that beat Matt Pickens in the first stanza of extra time.

FC Cincinnati Shot Chart

Fortunately, when it really mattered during the penalty kicks, all six FC Cincinnati players converted their spot kicks with style and accuracy.

Updated USL Playoff Brackets

In the East, two of the four games went to sudden-death penalty kicks. In addition to FC Cincinnati’s 6-5 penalty kick edge over Nashville, Bethlehem Steel beat host Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC 8-7 in PKs. The Steel will go on to meet Louisville City, who dispatched USL newcomers Indy Eleven without difficulty, 4-1.

For the second year in a row, the New York Red Bulls II went to Charleston and upset the higher-seeded Battery in the first round. An early goal by Tom Barlow was enough to see the Baby Bulls through to the conference semifinals. New York will visit Nippert for the second time this season to take on the Orange & Blue.

Below is an updated Eastern Conference playoff bracket.

Graphic by Connor Paquette

Across the nation in the Western Conference, a real shocker occurred late into the night when the 7th seed Swope Park Rangers knocked out a surging Sacramento Republic FC 2-1. Many had predicted Sacramento to make a deep run in the playoffs. SPR will now visit Phoenix Rising in the conference semifinals, who handled Portland Timbers 2 easily 3-0 Friday night.

The other conference semifinal will send Reno 1868 FC to Orange County SC. Reno was able to find a 92-minute stoppage time winner to beat the slumping Real Monarchs in Salt Lake City. Orange County’s high powered offense benefited from a hat trick by Michael Seaton as they clobbered a 10-man (21st minute red card) Saint Louis FC 4-0.

Here is the updated Western Conference playoff bracket.

Graphic by Connor Paquette

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 USL Cup playoff run and Saturday’s match versus New York Red Bulls II.

FC Cincinnati 1-1 (6-5 PKs) Nashville SC: Karma Finally Blows Cincinnati’s Way

FC Cincinnati was eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday, falling to Minnesota United FC on penalty kicks.

Nashville 10.20_Match Recap
Graphic: Connor Paquette / Image: Ryan Meyer

After the preseason, the teams were tied. After three regular-season games, the teams were tied. After 120 minutes of stalemate soccer, the teams were tied 1-1. Finally, FC Cincinnati overcame karma and past playoff misery to beat Nashville SC in penalty kicks, 6-5. The boys in Orange & Blue solved Nashville’s pesky come-back offense and move onto the next round.

A sun-swept weather pattern led to a blustery game, as the wind appeared to control the tempo. FC Cincinnati had much of the possession (68% to 32%) in the first half. However, no real results came from their six shots, thanks to a compressing Nashville back line. Fanendo Adi got the brunt of looks at the goal, particularly when Matt Pickens managed to swat away a deflection in the 17th minute. Emmanuel Ledesma also got a decent look in the 42nd minute, but his fall-away shot in the box laced wide of the frame.

Nashville’s best look came in the 24th minute when Spencer Richey padded away a light header by Ropapa Mensah in the box. Richey started for FCC instead of USL Golden Glove recipient Evan Newton, but the goalkeeper had flashes of brilliance with point-blank saves.

While both teams had better shots the second half, neither could capitalize. Nashville took more possession and exuded more confidence, moving possession past the defense. Nashville’s best chance came from a Mensah shot in the 74th minute that beat Richey, but nailed the framework. A chip-shot by Alan Winn in the 48th minute and a header by Mensah in the 81st were both snuffed by Richey. Kenney Walker gave a last-second gasp in stoppage time, only for Pickens to palm it away with a dive.

Extra time finally gave FC Cincinnati the lead. Jimmy McLaughlin and Walker fed Corben Bone who drilled a right-footed bullet past Pickens from the top of the box in the 95th minute. FCC managed to milk the clock for the rest of the first half of extra time, avoiding a header on target by Brandon Allen in the 105th minute.

However, Nashville changed the pace in the second half of extra time. Bradley Bourgeois found space atop the box in the 115th minute to fire a high deflection that dropped over Richey. After 120 minutes, both sides were still knotted, this time at 1-1.

The wind made the upcoming penalty kicks an adventure. Many of the shots were paused after the ball was blown off the spot. Both sides traded five successful scores, but the sixth take from Justin Davis popped high into the stands. A false alarm victory dance by FCC followed, but Walker then stepped up, fired past Pickens, and sent FCC to the second round.

Final Score: FC Cincinnati 1-1 (6-5 PKs) Nashville SC

Highlight of the Match

While the penalty kicks decided fate, the goal by Corben Bone in the 95th minute was a combination play by Bone, Walker, and McLaughlin. It was great to see the three combine for one of the biggest goals in FC Cincinnati folklore.

Quote of the Match

Kenney Walker discussed with the press how he lined up his penalty kick, particularly after the team had jumped the gun and rushed over to Richey when Nashville missed their penalty kick.

“I knew we didn’t win the game, but I was hoping that I was maybe thinking wrong. . . . There was a little added pressure, but at the same time, you just got to go out there and score. You either pick your spot, put it there, and he saves it, or you beat him to your spot. That’s as simple as you can put it, but there’s still pressure on it.”

Key Events

95′ – GOAL – CIN – Corben Bone (assisted by Kenney Walker)
104′ – YELLOW CARD – CIN – Blake Smith (foul)
110′ – YELLOW CARD – NSH – Justin Davis (foul)
111′ – YELLOW CARD – CIN – Emmanuel Ledesma (foul)
115′ – GOAL – NSH – Bradley Bourgeois (assisted by Kris Tyrpak)
116′ – YELLOW CARD – NSH – Bradley Bourgeois (celebration)

PENALTY KICKS

Liam Doyle – NSH – good
Fanendo Adi – CIN – good
Brandon Allen – NSH – good
Jimmy McLaughlin – CIN – good
Alan Winn – NSH – good
Blake Smith – CIN – good
Matt LaGrassa – NSH – good
Justin Hoyte – CIN – good
Kris Tyrpak – NSH – good
Forrest Lasso – CIN – good
Justin Davis – NSH – miss
Kenney Walker – CIN – good

Match Notes

FC Cincinnati outshot Nashville 22-16, but Nashville had more on frame (6-5). While FCC owned the possession numbers in the first half (67% – 33%), Nashville played better in the second half and extra time to make the overall possession slightly tighter (60% – 40%). Although this match is a draw in the books, FC Cincinnati has now gone 24 games unbeaten.

Starting XI

Adi
Bone – Albadawi (85′ McLaughlin) – Ledesma (120+1′ Welshman)
Gibson (100′ Ryan) – Alashe (68′ Walker)
Smith – Lasso – Barrett – Hoyte
Richey

The Starting XI from last week’s match against Nashville was relatively unchanged, except for Alashe taking Michael Lahoud’s position. Danni König was not available for personal reasons, and Emery Welshman returned from international duty with Guyana.

What’s Next?

The run for the USL Cup continues with another Saturday afternoon matinee. The New York Red Bulls II dispatched the Charleston Battery 1-0 and will come to Nippert for the 4pm match on Saturday, October 27th.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 postseason.

Nashville 10.20_Match Recap

2018 USL Cup Run: Orange & Blue Press Staff Predictions

The O&BP staff try their hand at predicting the thoroughbreds and dark horses for the 2018 USL Cup playoffs.

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Image: Ryan Meyer

FC Cincinnati’s much anticipated 2018 opening-round playoff match has finally arrived. Having secured the most points in USL history to earn a playoff passage for the third time in three seasons, will the Orange & Blue right past inequities and grab their first-ever postseason victory?  Will FCC finally overcome Nashville and extend their unbeaten streak to 24 games?  Will we see a second-round match come October 27th?

As a lead-up to Saturday’s game, we invited the Orange & Blue Press staff to opine on several USL playoff questions and possibilities. Here are the results…

1. Which team is most likely to knock off FCC in the East?

Graphics by Connor Paquette

Michael Walker (Founder/Managing Editor):  Louisville City FC

As unpopular as it is for Cincinnatians to accept, Louisville City is still the next best team in the East, and now that John Hackworth has some games under his belt, they’re on a winning streak and banging in the goals.

Geoff Tebbetts (Writer/Editor):  Louisville City FC

Louisville City figured FCC out early and often this year, and that hurricane at Slugger really doesn’t count for much in my opinion. I still think FCC can get to Louisville keeper Greg Ranjitsingh a few times, but Lou City’s offense just looks harder to hold back now that Luke Spencer is healthy again. 

Stephen Buckeridge (Writer/Editor):  Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

The Riverhounds match up well against Eastern rivals Louisville City and FC Cincinnati. They are compact and stingy on defense, their keeper Daniel Lynd is healthy again, and they know how to effectively apply high pressure on the opposing backlines. Their secret weapon though may be their coach, Bob Lilley. He’s a USL playoff veteran and won the USL Cup with with the Rochester Rhinos in 2015.

Connor Paquette (Contributor/Graphics):  Nashville SC

FC Cincinnati earning the 2018 USL Regular Season Title was almost laughably easy. But FCC is not exempt from the Queen City “first-round-and-out” curse that has been plaguing local major league teams for more than two decades. Beyond our playoff curse, FCC failed to produce a win against Nashville all season. If the trend continues and another draw is the finale to this rivalry’s USL chapter, I fear facing Matt Pickens in penalty kicks to decide the match.

Joe Craven (Photographer):  New York Red Bulls II

New York Red Bulls II have a recent USL Cup title of their own. With a consistent finish to the regular season, I predict they will pose a hefty challenge for the Orange & Blue.

2. Which team from the Western Conference will FCC play in the USL Championship Game?

Graphics by Connor Paquette

Connor:  Sacramento Republic FC

One month ago, I would’ve said Phoenix Rising FC. However, though they were once on pace to finish the season as the West’s #1 seed, they dropped their final two games – usually a sign of a burnt-out squad. That in mind, I consider Sacramento Republic FC, who are undefeated in their final eight regular season matches, to be the team to beat in the West. They’re peaking heading into the most important part of the season.

JoeSacramento Republic FC

Sacramento Republic FC has a solid defense and a reputation for performing well during the playoffs, winning the USL Cup in their first season in 2014 under Preki. First-year head coach, Simon Elliott, will lead the Republic side back to the Cup Final.

StephenOrange County SC

Going against the OB&P grain it appears, I see Orange County muscling through the gauntlet in the West. They have a difficult path, even as a #1 seed. OCSC boasts a prolific attack led by Thomas Enevoldsen (20 goals, 9 assists) and former FCC player Aodhan Quinn (11 goals, 14 assists, and a league high 103 chances created). Not to be outdone by their offense, they have a more than adequate defense that is ranked in the top tier statistically. Hosting each game at home, where they are 10-3-4 this season, may be the clinching factor.

Geoff:  Sacramento Republic FC

I am hesitant to stick with my mid-season pick of Orange County SC, so I’ll go with the hotter team, Sacramento Republic. The team has gone undefeated in their last eight games, and Cameron Iwasa has scored 10 goals in his last 15 matches. Sacramento has also managed to beat Orange County twice this year, which helps if they go on the road against them in the conference final. Besides, don’t you want a Sacramento-Cincinnati rematch?!

Michael:  Sacramento Republic FC

The West is wild, and the #1 seed has gotten knocked out early the past two seasons, so don’t expect to see OCSC there necessarily. Sacramento Republic hasn’t grabbed headlines lately, but they are the two seed, have a great home field advantage, and their half of the bracket might be more manageable.

3. Who are your dark horse picks for the East and West?

Michael:

East: New York Red Bulls II. The Red Bulls always produce a steady stream of high-quality talent and have been to the Eastern Conference finals the last two seasons. They won the whole thing in 2016. They’re inconsistent, but when they’re clicking they can beat anyone in the USL.

West: Reno 1868 FC. They’re undefeated in their last 7 including 5 wins. But in truth, whatever Geoff Tebbetts says … he knows that conference better than I do. Can I cheat off of his paper? 

Geoff:

East: New York Red Bulls II. In the East, I still think Red Bulls II is a scary team. It’s hard to ignore what they pulled off last year in the playoffs, and coach John Wolyniec continues to stockpile high-octane pieces on offense.

West: Phoenix Rising FC. Well, I had Reno as my dark horse, but it appears there’s not enough room on this bandwagon. Phoenix, despite their last two games of the season, have a talented offense spearheaded by winger Solomon Asante. If Chris Cortez (17 goals) can remain hotter than the Sonoran Desert, I think they could give Didier Drogba a retirement present.

Joe:

East: Bethlehem Steel FC. I believe Bethlehem Steel FC may surprise people. Their path to an Eastern Conference title won’t be easy for them though.

West: Reno 1868 FC. Reno 1868 FC closed out their season well. Real Monarchs and Reno 1868 FC will be a good match-up in the Conference Quarter-finals.

Connor:

East: Louisville City FC. I’ve already discussed Nashville and the difficult first round playoff hump, so I’m gonna cheat a little and go with the #2 seed. Louisville experienced growing pains after losing Head Coach James O’Connor. However, they seem to be stabilized again after finishing the regular season with six straight wins. Oh, and their last loss? That would be against FC Cincinnati in the rain. Revenge in the eye of the defending champions vs. the 2018 Regular Season Champs in the Eastern Conference title match? Now that’s a finale worthy of the Dirty River Derby.

West: Reno 1868 FC. Reno is only a year off of setting the single season scoring record. Along with this, I’m sticking to my fear of teams who are hitting their stride heading into the playoffs. Reno is undefeated in their last seven games. They also capped off their season by thumping the #1 seed in the West, Orange County SC, 3-1. Ye be warned.

4. Who will be the FC Cincinnati MVP in the 2018 USL playoffs? 

Connor:  Forrest Lasso

Though FCC’s entire team has seen plenty of rotation in 2018, our stalwart central defender has remained the anchor securing Cincinnati’s elite defense. At 25 years of age, this is a perfect time for the young defender to hone his leadership skills and cement the defensive wall – just like he did against FC Cincinnati as a member of the Charleston Battery in the 2016 USL Playoffs. If Lasso struggles, you’ll notice. But he hasn’t and that’s a big part of why FC Cincinnati has the best goal differential in the entire USL.

Stephen:  Emmanuel Ledesma

Hard to not go with the most influential player on the team and the odds-on league MVP. Success in the playoffs is neither guaranteed nor straight-forward. A clever touch, a timely assist against the run of play, an “Olimpico” or a free kick golazo may be the elixir that sees a Cincinnati sports team win in the playoffs. Manu was the catalyst for this team all season; let’s continue that winning formula to the 2018 USL Cup.

Joe:  Forrest Lasso

Keen awareness, hardworking, and willing to sacrifice. Enough said. 

Geoff:  Corben Bone

Assuming that FCC can go far in the playoffs, I think you ride the Cinderella story that is Corben Bone. Team defenses are going to focus on Emmanuel Ledesma and Fanendo Adi so much that Bone will likely have runs at the goal like he had against Nashville in the final game of the season. It would be the perfect postscript to the season.

MichaelForrest Lasso

It’s cliché but defense wins championships. A lot of FCC’s recent success has required them to absorb shots and pressure but not concede goals. Remember that header he cleared off the line against Penn FC? Manu and Adi will provide FCC’s goals, but we’ll need heroic defending and Lasso’s aerial dominance to lift the cup.


Have your own thought on how the 2018 USL Playoffs will unfold? Share your opinions with us as you get ready for the “Blue Out” at Nippert Saturday at 4pm.

* Special thanks to all our Orange & Blue Press colleagues and friends for an enjoyable and fun season covering this team. In addition, thank you Connor Paquette for spurring us on to co-author this glimpse into the Orange & Blue staff’s USP playoff predictions.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for all of your FC Cincinnati coverage during their 2018 USL Cup playoff run.

FCCvINDY-173

Playoff Decision Weekend: Who Will FC Cincinnati Face in the First Round?

Photo by: Ryan Meyer

Although the four midweek USL Eastern Conference matches failed to clarify FC Cincinnati’s first round opponent, it raised the stakes for this weekend’s regular-season finale. Nashville SC was leading Toronto FC II 2-0 late in the second half Tuesday evening before relinquishing the lead. Inexplicably, the match ended in a 2-2 draw, unleashing the following ripple effect within the Eastern Conference playoff race:

  • Charleston Battery cemented the 4th Eastern playoff seed
  • Indy Eleven and New York Red Bulls II clinched a playoff berth
  • Nashville SC missed out on clinching a playoff berth
  • Nashville may now miss out on the playoffs entirely if the following occurs this weekend:
    • Ottawa FC beats Charleston Battery Saturday at 2:00 PM
    • FCC beats Nashville SC Saturday at 8:30 PM
    • Bethlehem Steel FC tie or beat Tampa Bay Sunday at 3:00 PM

Wednesday’s 1-1 draw in Atlanta between the Atlanta United 2 and the Riverhounds resulted in the top four Eastern playoff seeds being solidified:

  1.  FC Cincinnati
  2.  Louisville City FC
  3.  Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
  4.  Charleston Battery.

Following the midweek action, here is your updated USL Eastern Conference Standings, ranked by projected points. 

Graphic by Connor Paquette

Determining FCC’s First Round Playoff Opponent

The one remaining question of the 2018 regular season is this … which team will FC Cincinnati face on October 20th at Nippert?

Let’s review the six teams in contention and their potential paths to the postseason.

Indy Eleven

The Eleven currently sit in 5th place and have clinched a playoff spot. They are on the road at Louisville City Saturday evening. A win will cement fifth place for Indy and a playoff visit to Charleston. A draw or loss could drop them into the 8th spot, contingent on other results, and a return to Nippert next week. Indy are 1-0-1 vs LCFC this season.

New York Red Bulls II

The Baby Bulls are riding a five-match unbeaten streak as they host Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon. A win will solidify 5th or 6th place for NYRBII. A draw or loss could see them in Cincinnati on October 20th. New York lost 0-3 to the Riverhounds back in the middle of June but could be facing a Pittsburgh side content to rest tired legs before the playoffs.

Nashville SC

As mentioned above, Nashville holds the most interesting position of the remaining playoff contenders. They should have booked their playoff ticket earlier this week but now must beat FCC or seek help from others. A loss to Cincinnati, combined with a win by Ottawa and at least a draw by Bethlehem, sends them packing for the off-season. The “Fighting Six Strings” have played the Orange & Blue tough this season, earning two draws (home and away), but face a squad aiming for a USL record 23-game unbeaten streak. Here is your Match Program for Saturday’s influential contest.

Bethlehem Steel FC

The Steel control their own playoff destiny and host Tampa Bay at Goodman Stadium on Sunday. Bethlehem are 7-4-5 at home this season. They lost 0-2 at Tampa in the second game of the season; however, the Rowdies have been eliminated from the postseason and are only 4-9-3 on the road this year. Bethlehem is in an all-or-nothing scenario, as well. With a loss and an Ottawa win, they are eliminated. Should Indy, New York and Nashville all win in addition to the Steel, FCC would face Bethlehem at home October 20th. Bethlehem are able to finish as high as fifth with a win and ties or losses by Indy, New York and Nashville.

Ottawa Fury FC

Ottawa has been battling back into contention all season. After a dismal 0-4-1 start to the season, they are one win and some help from FCC or Tampa Bay in making the USL playoffs for the first time. The Fury host the playoff-bound Battery Saturday afternoon at TD Place Stadium, where they are 2-1-2 in their last five home matches.

North Carolina FC

The Dead Whales stumble into the final weekend with two losses in a row. They face their intrastate rival Charlotte Saturday evening in the North Carolina Derby. Not only do they need a win to take them to 47 points, they require Ottawa to draw or lose and Bethlehem to lose. That’s not all; they also need to overcome a plus-6 goal-differential with the Steel. NCFC has had the upper hand on the Independence this season, winning both matches with an aggregate 8-2 goal margin.

With many scenarios in play, what is your prediction of who FCC will play in the first round?

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press this weekend for updates to FC Cincinnati’s match vs Nashville SC and the latest regarding FCC’s first-round playoff opponent.

Midweek Scoreboard Watching: The Impact to FC Cincinnati’s First Round USL Playoff Opponent

With twelve matches remaining in the USL Eastern Conference regular season, the playoff picture is still unfolding. Specifically, we all want to know which opponent FC Cincinnati will host at Nippert Stadium on October 20th.

What We Know

Mathematically, there are multiple scenarios where FCC could play one of six different teams October 20th in the #1 vs #8 seed match. Here is what we know going into the final week of regular season action:

  • Four teams have officially clinched – FC Cincinnati, Louisville City, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and Charleston Battery.
  • The Orange & Blue have won the East, the League and will host 2018 playoff matches at Nippert, as far and long as the team continues to advance.
  • Six Eastern Conference teams have been eliminated – Charlotte Independence, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Penn FC, Atlanta United 2, Richmond Kickers, and Toronto FC II.
  • The remaining six teams are fighting for the last four playoff spots – Indy Eleven, Nashville SC, New York Red Bulls II, Bethlehem Steel, North Carolina FC, and Ottawa Fury.

Here is your current USL Eastern Conference Standings, ranked by projected points. 

Graphic by Connor Paquette

Other soccer leagues worldwide play their final matches on the same day and time. The USL schedule is different. The remaining 12 games are spread from Tuesday evening through Sunday afternoon. Ten of these matches have a potential impact in determining FC Cincinnati’s first round opponent.

What to Look for in the Midweek Matches

Let’s review three midweek matches that have a direct impact on the Orange & Blue’s first round USL playoff opponent.

Penn FC vs NYRB II, Tuesday 10/9 at 6:30 PM. News broke yesterday that Penn FC has decided to take a one-year hiatus before joining USL League One in 2020. This unexpected announcement may play perfectly into the Baby Bulls need for 3 points to solidify their playoff spot. New York currently sits in 7th place in the East with 1.44 points per game (49 total projected points). They will need to overcome their dismal 1-5-10 road record this season to stay in the top eight.

Louisville City FC vs North Carolina FC, Tuesday 10/9 at 7:00 PM. Since losing to FCC 0-1 in the rain-drenched multi-day affair four weeks ago, the “Boys in Purple” have won 4 straight games and are unbeaten in five. The defending USL Champions are rounding third and heading home (pun intended) into the playoffs under John Hackworth. Although a win Tuesday does not guarantee a second-place finish, it certainly moves them one large step closer. A tie or loss by NCFC makes it increasingly difficult for them to enter the 2018 playoff race. They would require a road win at Charlotte Saturday and a series of losses by NYRB II, Bethlehem, and Ottawa.

Nashville SC vs. Toronto FC II, Tuesday 10/9 at 8:30 PM. Nashville may be the most intriguing team left to clinch a playoff spot. They have an opportunity, with two wins and a Charleston loss this weekend, to capture 4th place overall. However, they could also fail to make the playoffs with two losses in their final two matches (and other results going against them). Don’t sleep on the last place team in the East. TFC II has surprisingly knocked off both Louisville and Charleston on the road in the past six weeks. In addition, NSC is only 1-2-2 in their last five matches in the Music City.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for updates to FC Cincinnati’s first-round playoff opponent and all of FCC’s 2018 USL playoff coverage.

Scouting the Field: Ranking FCC’s Possible First-Round Opponents

Now that FC Cincinnati is guaranteed a first-round home match, what potential matchup could spell the most trouble?

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Image: Ryan Meyer

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

IMG_8123
Image: Connor Paquette, teams are ordered by projected points.

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

1200px-Ottawa_Fury_svgRecord:               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

Indy_Eleven_Logo_svgRecord: 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

1200px-North_Carolina_FC_logo_svgRecord: 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

Bethlehem_Steel_FC_(USL)_CrestRecord: 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

220px-Red_Bull_New_York_II.pngRecord: 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

Nashville_SCRecord: 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!

FCCvNASH-118

Top 4 Clinch . . . Best in the East . . . USL Regular Season Champs . . . 2018 USL Cup?

Image: Joe Craven

As the Orange & Blue prepare for the resumption of play in Lousville on Tuesday, let’s take inventory of the current playoff picture and the run to the 2018 USL Cup.

Through Week 26 of the USL regular season, FCC still holds a commanding lead in the Eastern Conference. With seven matches remaining, FCC leads Pittsburgh by 11 points, Charleston by 12 points and Louisville City by 13 points. FC Cincinnati can finish no worse than fifth in the East based on the maximum points available per team (see below). FC Cincinnati needs 12 total points in any fashion to win the East outright and lock down home pitch advantage for the entire Eastern playoffs.

Eastern Conference Table

Teams Ranked by Maximum Points

So what’s up for grabs this coming week? None other than clinching a home playoff match October 20th at Nippert. Note the 3 point differential between FCC and Indy Eleven* above in yellow. To guarantee a first round home playoff match, only one of the following results needs to occur this week:

  • FCC closes out the win versus Louisville City FC Tuesday evening
  • The Orange & Blue beat Toronto FC II on Sunday
  • FCC draws LCFC Tuesday and Indy Eleven draws Penn FC on Wednesday
  • FCC draws TFC II Sunday and Indy Eleven draws Penn FC on Wednesday
  • Indy Eleven loses to Penn FC on Wednesday

*  With any of the results above, FC Cincinnati owns the first tiebreaker of most league wins over Indy

Ok, great…but who will the Orange & Blue be playing come October 20th at Nippert? Let’s take a look at the following graphic that shows a sensitivity analysis of possible playoff opponents (teams ranked by projected points) and the impact that current, projected and maximum points have with respect to the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Eastern Conference Playoff Race

Graphic by Connor Paquette

If the season finished today, and using the projected points metric (points per game earned extrapolated over 34 total matches) represented above, FCC would be hosting the Bethlehem Steel FC in the first round with the opportunity to face the winner of Charleston Battery vs Indy Eleven. All things considering, this is a pretty decent path to a potential Eastern Conference final where they could face the winner of the other side of the bracket (currently Pittsburgh, Louisville City, Nashville and New York).

Several factors go into the ideal, most favorable first round opponent at home, including:

  • Head to head results this season
  • Away record of possible opponent
  • Recent form
  • Any suspensions or injuries
  • International call-ups during the FIFA International October window

Who do you want to face in the opening playoff match? What surprises might we see in the remaining five weeks of USL play? Who would be the most difficult first round playoff opponent?  Let’s hear from you FCC fans.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for your remaining 2018 regular season and playoff coverage.

What’s Next to Clinch in FC Cincinnati’s Playoff Run?

The Orange & Blue clinched the first USL playoff berth; what’s next for the team to secure a home playoff match in their run towards the 2018 USL Cup?

Image: Joe Craven

Possibly you were out of tune this Labor Day weekend, but the Orange & Blue clinched a playoff berth with their 2-1 comeback victory Saturday. FCC is the first team in the conference and league to punch their postseason ticket. Talk about style points, what a way for Fanendo Adi to deliver his first Orange & Blue goal. Game winner…playoff clincher! Let’s continue our recent series postulating about FCC’s run to the 2018 USL Cup.

Now that the Orange & Blue have earned a playoff spot, what is next? FC Cincinnati’s next water level mark is to secure a top four Eastern Conference position. With this achievement, FCC would be guaranteed to host a first-round match at Nippert the weekend of October 20th. The same mechanism applies that did to clinch a playoff berth. For a top four placement, FCC’s point total will need to exceed the max points possible for 12 other teams in the East.

Eastern Conference Table

Of note, several things jump out by looking at the table above (ranked by ppg):

  • The “(x)” symbolizes the Orange & Blue playoff clinch. Thank you USL for coming around and agreeing with our math.
  • FCC’s 18 wins matches the 2017 USL Cup champion Louisville City’s regular season win total, in five less matches played.
  • The lead at the top has grown to a season high 13 points as Louisville, Pittsburgh and Charleston have all failed to win a match over the past few games.
  • FCC can finish no lower than 7th place in the East (nine teams are below 60 max points as highlighted in green).
  • FC Cincinnati can clinch a home playoff match this week, as there are four teams in the top four clinch zone (highlighted in yellow), meaning a possible six point swing between Cincinnati’s current 60 points and each team’s maximum points possible:
    • Charleston Battery (6 point differential)
    • Indy Eleven (3 points)
    • Nashville SC (2 points)
    • New York Red Bulls II (1 point)

In order to clinch that coveted home playoff match this week, FCC can simply win at Louisville City FC (+3 points automatically jumps Indy*, Nashville SC and the Baby Bulls), OR FCC can tie Louisville Saturday and need the following two results to both occur:

  • Indy and NYRB II draw Wednesday
  • Nashville draws or loses at the Dead Whales in North Carolina Saturday

Oh, that asterisk above means that we already own the first playoff tie-breaker over Indy, which is total wins in league games. In addition, if the Orange & Blue earn just 12 points in the next 7 games, they will clinch the Eastern Conference (as LCFC’s max total points are 71).

Fortunately, the mindset of the team and coach is onto the next game and final prize of the USL Cup. Listen to Alan Koch speak about enjoying the win versus Pittsburgh, but also moving onto the next game.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press as we continue to provide all of your 2018 FC Cincinnati regular season coverage and unveil possible first round playoff matches in the coming weeks.

How Will FC Cincinnati Clinch A Playoff Berth?

A fifteen match unbeaten streak is great, but when will the Orange & Blue clinch a playoff berth? Here are the scenarios.

Since their last loss to Louisville City, FC Cincinnati’s unbeaten streak has reached 15 matches (11-0-4). The Orange & Blue haven’t lost a USL match in 13 weeks and 2 days. That feels so long ago; do you remember that time period before the big MLS reveal (“pre-MLS”)?

Fans are now wondering how and when FC Cincinnati will clinch a playoff berth. Based on the posts and chatter on-line, there appears to be varying opinions and some confusion on this. Let’s set the record on the turntable and provide the answer to this burning question.

As posted two weeks ago, recent history tells us that the eighth and final playoff spot will hover around 1.4 points per game (48 points overall). The fourth playoff spot, which guarantees a home match, will likely require 1.7 ppg (58 points). So how does the East stack up after 24 weeks of action, ranked by points per game?

USL Eastern Conference Standings (ranked by points per game)

At 57 points, FCC has all but made the playoffs statistically and are knocking on the door for hosting at least one match at Nippert the weekend of October 20th. Still, let’s take a peek at what is required for the Orange & Blue to officially “clinch” a playoff spot.

There is an easy way to determine whether FCC has clinched a spot against another USL East team that all can follow. Did you notice the last two columns above in the table labeled “Max Points” and “Point Differential”? If FCC’s current point total is greater than the maximum point total achievable by a given team (assuming that team wins the rest of their games), then FCC clinches against that team. To clinch a playoff berth, FCC needs to have more points earned than the maximum points attainable by eight other Eastern Conference teams.

To apply this standard, simply subtract FCC’s current point total from the maximum points an individual team can still earn. For instance, there is a 3-point differential between Bethlehem Steel FC and Cincinnati (60 – 57). This means that any combination of a 4-point swing in Cincinnati’s favor between the two clubs would clinch a spot for FCC. A Cincinnati win (+3) and tie by Bethlehem (-2) equals 5 points, while a FCC win (+3) and Steel loss (-3) is 6 points.

In the table above, we have highlighted in green the teams that FCC has already clinched against. These teams include Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta United 2, and TFC II (all negative point differentials). Even my Texas A&M “Aggie” math indicates that we have already clinched a spot over six teams. Meanwhile, those in yellow – Bethlehem Steel, the Baby Bulls, North Carolina, and Penn FC – are teams that are within this week’s possible clinch zone (i.e. a 6-point differential).

There are eleven games scheduled on the USL Eastern Conference docket this week (Tuesday through Sunday). Not all have a direct impact on FCC’s clinching scenario. Here are the key matches you will want to follow closely:

  • Friday, 8/31 New York Red Bulls II vs Ottawa Fury FC
  • Saturday, 9/1 FC Cincinnati vs Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
  • Saturday, 9/1 North Carolina FC vs Tampa Bay Rowdies
  • Sunday, 9/2 Bethlehem Steel FC vs Penn FC

To clinch a playoff berth this week, FC Cincinnati would need a win and just one of the following:

  • a Red Bulls II loss or tie to the Fury
  • a NCFC loss or tie to the Rowdies
  • a Steel loss or tie to Penn FC

A Cincinnati tie (or loss) postpones the inevitable one more week, as Bethlehem and Penn FC play each other. Since both of these teams have a point differential of two or more points, an FCC win vs. Pittsburgh is necessary to clinch. Honestly, there is no rush to clinch a berth. The club is still in a battle for winning the conference, and we all know that going on the road to any city in the East during the playoffs will be difficult.

Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press as we continue to provide all of your 2018 FC Cincinnati regular season and playoff coverage.

Was That an FC Cincinnati Home Playoff “Save the Date” Announcement?

FC Cincinnati fans can certainly agree on one thing – they want to win the 2018 USL Cup before moving up to the first division! It’s no surprise to many, including the analytical website and sports blog FiveThirtyEight, that the Orange & Blue are the USL Cup favorites.

With only nine weeks remaining in the USL regular season, it’s hard not to daydream about hosting several playoff matches. Heck, the club even put out their version of a “Save the Date” last week. The tease was real. Keep an eye on the weekend of October 20th for a first round playoff match at Nippert.

So what will it take to: a) make the playoffs, and b) secure a home playoff match on October 20th and beyond? Let’s take a look at recent USL water levels for likely points needed to answer these questions.

In 2016 and 2017, it took a minimum of 1.17 and 1.38 points per match respectively to make the Eastern Conference playoffs. Considering the current depth and talent of teams in the East, we will throw-out the 2016 figure as an outlier. Now let’s take a look at the current Eastern Conference standings ranked by points per match.

Design: CSDIV

Of note, the teams currently in 7th through 10th are all hovering around this 1.38 figure. Extrapolating this mark over 34 regular season matches, this magical playoff line translates to a projected minimum of 47 total points. A light may have just clicked on in your head. Yes, that is correct, the Orange and Blue already have 48 points. It is extremely likely, as it would take an epic collapse, for FCC not to make the playoffs at this point. The first water level mark is reached.

But that’s not FCC’s goal, just making the playoffs. Digging deeper, what will it take to secure a first-round home playoff match, meaning a top four spot? Let’s go back to recent history again. In 2016 and 2017, the fourth-place East finisher tallied at least 1.70 and 1.65 points per match. The barometer for this next stage equates to a range of 56 to 58 total points to secure a first round home game. Taking the higher end of the range, FCC would need to earn 10 additional points this season (call it 3 wins and a tie) over the remaining 11 games to likely host a lower seed at Nippert. The second water level mark is within reach.

Why is this all important?

Recent playoff history shows us that in the first round the home team wins 75% of the time (see charts below).

2016 USL Playoff Chart
2017 USL Playoff Chart

FC Cincinnati’s home 2016 playoff loss to Charleston Battery was only one of two losing results in the past two Eastern conference quarterfinal rounds. If you’re studying the charts above, you’ve already come to the realization that the home team also won 75% of the Eastern Conference semifinal matches. The old adage of a home field advantage certainly has played itself out in the USL Eastern Conference playoffs.

To reach the club’s goal and win the 2018 USL Cup, the successful trend tells us we need to host each playoff match throughout the playoffs. Setting the bar at this highest of water levels, the squad will need to maintain the top position in the conference. Accordingly, this will require FCC to retain its present pace of earning 2.0 to 2.1 points per match. Keep watch closely over the remaining matches to see if (and when) the Orange & Blue can reach this 68 to 71 total point pinnacle.

If this level occurs, we will also likely earn the rights to host the 2018 USL Cup at Nippert against one of the following Western Conference teams. Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press as we continue to provide all of your 2018 FC Cincinnati coverage.