Images of FC Cincinnati’s victory over the Charleston Battery on Saturday, February 16th at the Carolina Challenge Cup.
Here are images of FC Cincinnati’s 2-1 victory over the Charleston Battery on Saturday, February 16th. The win was secured in the first of three preseason tune-up contests in the 2019 Carolina Challenge Cup.
When browsing the gallery below, for any given image, a high-resolution version can be found by scrolling down and clicking “View Full Size.” All images are courtesy of Joe Craven.
All images are copyright protected to safeguard the creative rights of our photographers. We’re very open to sharing our work with those who want to show support for FC Cincinnati. We simply request that you ask (via DM on Twitter or email) and give credit where it’s due. Thanks!
Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s preseason.
The Athletic reported last week that MLS is considering a major revamp to both its regular season and playoff schedules. The main goal of the change is to shorten the season, which currently lasts over nine months with playoffs included. By comparison, the USL season, including its postseason, was about six weeks shorter than the MLS season in 2018. The USL schedule started two weeks later and finished a month earlier, despite featuring the same number of regular-season matches per team.
How will they shorten it?
One way MLS will reportedly shorten the season is by adding more midweek games. MLS teams currently play a schedule including four-midweek games per season, per team. That would increase to six per season. That’s not a change for FC Cincinnati fans, as the USL had six-midweek regular season games in 2018.
MLS will also likely to introduce single-elimination playoffs, shortening the duration of the postseason by eliminating two-legged fixtures in the conference semifinals and conference finals. The combined changes will present the opportunity to conclude the playoffs and hold MLS Cup before the standard November FIFA international break. This season, that international break was planted right in the middle of the MLS playoffs, leading to several complaints (as in year’s past) about disrupting the momentum of the playoffs.
There are a number of positives to whittling down the length of the MLS season. Perhaps the most obvious benefit is avoiding winter weather. MLS could finish the regular season in September and get the bulk of the playoffs done in October, which is much more likely to be a good weather month than November in cities like Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Chicago, and so on. An earlier finish reduces the prospect of a frigid MLS Cup. MLS held last year’s final on December 9th in Toronto on a day when the high temperature was 34 degrees. Everyone survived via the cunning use of toe-warmers, but crowning a champion a month earlier gives the participants a better shot at palatable weather.
The earlier finish also reduces the amount of time MLS contends with some very popular sports, like college football and the NFL. These clearly compete for eyeballs and ticket dollars as the MLS season draws to a close. Finally, there’s the reason stated previously. The playoffs would complete before the international break that disrupts the flow of the end-of-season tournament. All of that sounds pretty compelling, right?
Midweek games typically draw smaller crowds due to the obvious contention with work and school schedules, so there is potentially a revenue hit to the teams there. However, they typically garner more TV eyeballs so maybe that reason, especially for just two games, isn’t a major factor.
Adding more midweek games to the calendar also means the potential for a congested mid-season schedule once the U.S. Open Cup begins. The Open Cup, of course, consists primarily of midweek games, but keep in mind MLS teams enter a round later than USL teams. Most FC Cincinnati fans will remember how fatigued the 2017 team became as they progressed further in the Open Cup. Luckily, US Soccer rescheduled the quarterfinal due to a torrential Miami storm. That saved FC Cincinnati from playing that key match without Berry, Delbridge, and Wiedeman, who were all unfit to play. The biggest change and the biggest potential drawback, however, is the modification of the postseason to a single-elimination format.
What is the Right Format for Soccer Playoffs, if Any?
When I first heard about the idea of single-elimination, I immediately thought “no way, I don’t like it”. I don’t like change and I follow many other soccer tournaments and leagues that use a two-legged home and away format.
When I challenged myself on it though, I found a different perspective and here’s where I landed. I’m not a huge fan of playoff systems for soccer in general. I’ve watched European soccer for a long time. Therefore, I am comfortable with a league that determines the champion based on which team performs the best over a grueling regular season. But, as long as MLS determines its champion by a playoff system, I don’t see the need to for two-legged fixtures, especially when they are only utilized for two of the rounds. A two-legged contest is arguably fairer. It reduces the likelihood that a single mistake or single brilliant moment from a lesser team can sink a superior opponent. But that also defeats the purpose of a playoff in my opinion.
Playoffs excel at producing dramatic do-or-die contests that reward the team in the best form at that time. They aren’t the fairest, and they don’t truly determine the best overall team. If MLS is going to continue to use a playoff system, I suggest we embrace that mentality or do away with the playoffs altogether (not likely to happen, but that’s a different article). What MLS has now is a hybrid of single-elimination and two-legged ties that is inconsistent in format and takes too long. Plus if you move to single-elimination, you reap all of the scheduling benefits discussed above.
I know some of my Orange & Blue Press colleagues disagree, but what do you say?
In honor of the FC Cincinnati’s time spent in the USL, we’ve decided to share our favorite 10 moments.
MLS is on the horizon for FC Cincinnati. We all, together, made this happen. However, it wasn’t always this way. Only three years ago, in 2015, an ownership group led by Cincinnati magnate Carl Lindner III announced the USL expansion club. Since then, the United Soccer League has served as the humble home for America’s latest (and greatest) soccer story.
In honor of the club’s time spent in the former Division 3 league (upgraded to Division 2 in 2017), we’ve decided to gather our favorite moments. Since we’re focusing purely on FC Cincinnati’s time in the USL, we’ve omitted all moments relating to MLS, U.S. Open Cup, and International Friendlies. Those are the rules. Let’s get started!
10. Stevenson’s Playoff Rocket
Underrated, especially in terms of context, Eric Stevenson’s top-right rocket took the breath away from the 30,000+ in attendance for FC Cincinnati’s first-ever playoff match. This bullet was a fantastic way to kick off the club’s postseason history. Unfortunately, the team eventually fell 1-2 against the Charleston Battery, dropping this moment to the bottom of the list.
9. Greeting the New Neighbor
For those who are unaware, just last year there was another Division 2 soccer league in the United States, the NASL. The Indy Eleven, less than two hours from Cincinnati, played in that league making it impossiible for the two teams to cross. That changed when Indy joined the USL in 2018. They hosted FC Cincinnati for their first-ever home game in not only the USL, but the Colts home, Lucas Oil Stadium. Thousands of FCC supporters flooded into the heart of Indiana to greet them. Big crowds have traveled to other away matches, but nothing quite reaches the level of Orange & Blue that traveled to Indy that day.
Surely, there’s a metaphor here. When FC Cincinnati first began to sign players, the names Corben Bone, Kenney Walker, and Jimmy McLaughlin were among the few. Three years later, the city has fallen in love with these guys. It’s extremely fulfilling to see men who joined FCC as foundation pieces for their journey in the USL also become the definitive factors for their final USL goal.
7. Djiby’s Spectacular Debut
Djiby Fall was a strange man in all the right ways. His 2017 season was an enigma. It almost doesn’t feel real looking back. He showed up out of nowhere, dominated, and then disappeared into the abyss. It might have been an odd year, but it kicked off with a four-goal epic by the man himself. Thanks, Djiby.
6. Okoli’s Scissor Kick
The first FC Cincinnati home game. The club’s first goal at Nippert Stadium. One of the greatest goals that a man in Orange & Blue has produced. How does this not make the list?
FC Cincinnati set the USL attendance record a record number of times. But we’ve heard of those accomplishments before. Yet it would be a disservice to ignore the literal game-changing support from Cincinnati and its effect on soccer in America as a whole. Thus, I’ve decided to honor the first ever home game attendance for FCC. It was this moment where a record wasn’t yet broken, but everyone seemed to stop and ponder for a moment, “hey, this could be something special.” The rest is history.
4. Goal-to-Goal Bomber
I’m biased. I don’t care. This landed at #1 on SportsCenters Top 10 plays for good reason. This is the 2018 USL goal of the year. This is the single greatest goal in FC Cincinnati history. The crowd was quiet, the game was frustrating, and then Kenney Walker breaks down our door, drinks our beer, and steals our significant other. The ball doesn’t hit the ground.
3. Undefeated Playoff Finale
It lasted five months and it took the USL by storm. 24 games undefeated will headline FC Cincinnati’s USL Book of Records. And such a historic streak culminated in Cincinnati supporters’ worst nightmare, the first round of the playoffs. For the third time in three years FCC qualified, this time up against fellow future MLS entrant, Nashville SC. Having never conquered their new rival, it took FC Cincinnati a goal in extra time, a moment that also made this list, just to make it to PKs. Ten successful PKs later, Nashville finally popped a shot over the top that let Kenney Walker blast in the winner on the next kick. Cincinnati won a playoff game. How ‘bout that?
2. The Announcement
I debated putting this at #1. Cincinnati has always been a smaller city; a two-sport city is how many described it. But it wasn’t, yet the people had been convinced of that for years. Soccer, hockey, and basketball are all sports that never quite took off in the city like football and baseball. Why would FC Cincinnati be any different? I really don’t know.
Perhaps it was better operations, a more interesting identity, or just quality soccer? Maybe all three? No matter, this is in the past. But this moment is still absolutely crucial for any other moment on this list to happen. FC Cincinnati has only played three seasons, and I’m convinced that without these three years in Divisions 2 & 3 that there would be no talk about MLS here today. FC Cincinnati needed USL. And we learned later on, the USL, to be where it is now, needed FCC. Something like this will not happen again.
1. Regular Season Champions
Shocking, right? If there’s one thing even bigger than announcing your team, it’s winning the most prestigious prize – a Cup/Shield. There are so many teams playing right now that have been around for decades and haven’t won anything. This is what it’s all about. So, for FCC to not only earn the shield, but to do it in the most Cincinnati way – record-setting fashion – we’re reassured of the greatness to come based on what they’ve been through. We’re also reminded that time flies, so worry not about the small things, enjoy what you’ve got. Cincinnati has a lot to enjoy. Thanks USL.
With FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season now in the books, we wanted to share a consolidated view of the Orange & Blue Press’ Match Program covers from this season
With FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season now in the books, we wanted to share a consolidated view of the Orange & Blue Press Match Program covers from this season. CSDIV put a tremendous amount of work into these graphics over 36 matches and we were extremely happy with the result. Thank you. As always, a special thanks to Ryan Meyer, Joe Schmuck, and Joe Craven for the photography that serves as the centerpiece for these graphics.
The Orange & Blue Press Match Program series is a fresh take on the “Cheat Sheet” infographic that we published to preview FC Cincinnati’s matches in 2017. This season we simplified the information graphic and added custom cover art for each match that highlighted our photography. Those elements were then combined with a write-up and fast facts to get you ready for match day. Again, thanks to the photographers, writers, and CSDIV for the effort they put into these this season.
For more information on the English match programmes that were the inspiration for these previews, check out the information below.
Might as well see this through. Our guru predicts the next USL Cup representative from the East.
Three years of participation in the USL have been beneficial for FC Cincinnati. Paint it any way you like—FCC still advanced further than ever before in the standings this year. The regular-season trophy still has value. Some rivals may brag that it’s not a gold star, but hardware occupies the trophy case.
However, it’s hard to deny that seeing the same names at the top of the marquee at this stage of the season is rough. In all three years of FC Cincinnati’s existence, Louisville City has made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. That alone is frustrating enough, but all three years have also produced the same two opponents in those conference finals. When Louisville has excelled, New York Red Bulls II have been with them every step of the way.
New York won it all in 2016. Lou City took it all in 2017. Now it’s time for the rubber match, and yeah, it stings to watch that from the perspective of the bystander.
There is at least one bright side. Phoenix Rising’s victory against Swope Park means that the West will be represented by a new independent team. While “Team Drogba” took out the Rangers, Orange County SC defeated Reno 1868 to take the fourth and final spot. Yes, the East may be more of the same, but a team west of the Mississippi will get a shot to host its first USL Cup Final since 2014.
This point is where I stop talking about FC Cincinnati. If you’re okay with that, read on, while I take out my crystal ball…
Conference Final Predictions
#2 Louisville City FC (21-6-9) vs. #5 New York Red Bulls II (15-8-13)
New York leads the overall series (4-3-3). However, Louisville is undefeated in the past five matches, including the playoffs.
We’ve been down this road before, and the results have been eerily similar but opposite. New York hosted the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals against Louisville and knotted the game at 1-1 before extra time. Red cards were exchanged without a result, but the Baby Bulls managed a 4-3 win in penalty kicks. The 2016 USL Cup in Harrison was surprisingly well-attended, and New York blasted Swope Park 5-1.
In 2017, Louisville got the opportunity to host against New York and took another early 1-0 lead. However, New York again tied the game in the second half, and extra time was penniless. This time around, New York couldn’t find the frame in penalty kicks, and Lou City took that one 4-3. A late Cameron Lancaster goal was the difference in the 2017 USL Cup, with Lou City beating Swope Park 1-0.
And so the sides meet once again. Fifteen of the 18 players on Louisville’s gameday roster from last year are still on the team. The most important piece, ex-head coach James O’Connor, is now piecing together a broken Orlando City team. Pundits wondered if Lou City was washed up with only player-coaches, but the arrival of John Hackworth has done its job. Since their last loss to FC Cincinnati at home, Lou City has gone 8-0-1, outscoring their opponents 25-6. Their game against Bethlehem Steel FC last week was a relative cakewalk. Midfielder Brian Ownby finally returned to form, pocketing a brace to help Louisville win 2-0.
New York’s squad is almost a complete overhaul from 2017, but essential pieces remain. Andrew Tinari still helms the midfield, while goalkeeper Evan Louro has returned to fine form from his run in 2016. Head coach John Wolyniec is the glue that keeps this team together. During his tenure with Red Bulls II, the squad has been one of the most ruthless offenses in the USL—the team has scored an average of 2.01 goals per game since 2016. (Louisville has scored an average of 1.89 in the same span.)
We don’t need to tell you how the Baby Bulls pretty much dismantled FC Cincinnati in the Conference semifinals. A goal in the 12th minute from Amando Moreno stood the entire way, while the defense rattled the Orange & Blue constantly. Perhaps the 1-0 score is misleading, as New York controlled the ball well in small spaces and slowed the game’s pace to a crawl.
This year’s results:
Past games between Louisville and New York were relative displays of control and defense. The two matches this year were anything but that. In the first June matchup at Louisville, Lancaster put in two quick-fire goals for an early 2-0 lead. However, Louisville played a physical game against the Baby Bulls afterward. The team racked up 19 fouls and 5 yellow cards, while New York dominated possession (57%). It took a late header from Magnus Rasmussen to save a 3-3 draw for Louisville.
It appeared that New York had their own game well in hand back in August. Goals from Tinari and Ethan Kutler gave New York an early 2-0 advantage. However, Louisville pulled off their own offensive counter with a hat-trick from Lancaster. When the smoke cleared, Lou City’s fireworks display gave them the 6-4 win.
Both teams have understandably matured since their last game. Hackworth’s steadiness has given Louisville an eight-game winning streak and a path towards hosting another USL Cup. Wolyniec’s leadership has the Red Bulls on their own five-game winning run. Both teams have displayed immense kinetic energy on the pitch and have put up solid numbers against the other.
While both defenses are likely to be put through the wringer, the deciding factor will be the midfield. While Tinari has become a bedrock for New York, Louisville’s Ilija Ilic has played incredible football this year. His first of two goals against New York patched up the leak in that 6-4 comeback win. The Serbian’s numbers (12G, 11A) would have him in the MVP talks if it weren’t for his teammate Lancaster.
It will hurt the Greater Cincinnati region for me to say this, but I cannot see Louisville caving to the same hijinks that undid Cincinnati’s year last week. While New York enjoys playing a compact game, Slugger Field is made for that kind of close contact. On top of that, this Louisville offense is by far the most powerful it has ever been. Both teams will bomb the goal with plenty of strikes, but Lou City will do one better. Louisville 3, New York 2.
Again, the pain won’t go away after this game. No matter which team wins, they’ll be favored to double their cup total in the final. The best thing you can do is tune out the static and become a Phoenix or Orange County fan next week.
Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more on the USL Playoffs and all FC Cincinnati news as they transition to MLS competition next year.
Images of FC Cincinnati’s USL Cup Playoff loss to New York Red Bulls II on Saturday, October 27th, 2018.
Here are images of FC Cincinnati’s playoff defeat to New York Red Bulls II on Saturday, October 27th 2018. When browsing the gallery below, for any given image, a high-resolution version can be found by scrolling down and clicking “View Full Size.” A watermark identifying the photographer can be found on each photo. All images are courtesy of Joe Schmuck and Ryan Meyer.
For more particulars of Saturday’s contest, turn your attention to the following article.
All images are copyright protected to safeguard the creative rights of our photographers. We’re very open to sharing our work with those who want to show support for FC Cincinnati. We simply request that you ask (via DM on Twitter or email) and give credit where it’s due. Thanks!
Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s 2018 season.
FC Cincinnati set two new USL records and finished their regular season while playing Nashville SC to a 3-3 stalemate at First Tennessee Park.
FC Cincinnati’s dominant 2018 season came to an abrupt end on Saturday in the USL Cup playoffs, when they were defeated 1-0 by New York Red Bulls II. A modest crowd of 16,617 witnessed the end of FC Cincinnati’s USL era on a damp fall afternoon in the Queen City.
New York came into the match confident, on the heels for four straight wins, and clearly had the better first half. They capitalized quickly on their good start 12 minutes into the contest. Following a cleared Emmanuel Ledesma free kick, the Baby Bulls unleashed a piercing counter-attack. Supporting New York players distracted three FCC defenders long enough to allow Amando Moreno space for a shot. His effort from just outside the penalty area beat Spencer Richey to the lower left corner. John Wolyniec’s side shut down a one-dimensional FC Cincinnati with Fanendo Adi leading the line, allowing only one shot in the first stanza. At halftime, Alan Koch said, “we have to be better in the second,” but also cited New York’s gamesmanship and time-wasting following the goal.
FC Cincinnati adjusted to their alternate formation in the second half — a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield. That change plus the introduction of Kenney Walker in the 61st minute produced immediate benefits. The game opened up and both teams had chances to change the scoreline. Alan Koch also introduced Jimmy McLaughlin and Emery Welshman late in the match in an attempt to find a breakthrough. It wasn’t to be though. Despite 19 second-half shots between the two teams, neither team found the back of the net. A resilient Red Bulls II side salted away the game and FC Cincinnati’s record-setting season fell short of the promises offered by their regular season championship.
Final Score: FC Cincinnati 0 – 1 New York Red Bulls II
Highlight of the Match
FC Cincinnati had clear chances to equalize in the second half. New York also had quality chances to double their lead. Neither team could convert. Fanendo Adi’s 50th-minute effort was probably the best of the bunch for the Orange & Blue.
Emmanuel Ledesma was clearly the standout player of 2018 for the Orange & Blue. The Baby Bulls, however, limited FC Cincinnati’s star to just two off-target shots on Saturday. Manu was still able to create 3 chances and win 14 of 19 duels, but the Red Bulls were able to neutralize what should have been a deadly combination of Ledesma and Adi. Therefore, one 12th-minute goal was enough to sink the USL regular season champions.
Quote of the Match
Team captain Paddy Barrett had the following to say about the loss in the post-match press conference.
“We’re all mature enough to take this on the chin . . . To be part of this group, we don’t want it to end on such a low. From me and everybody in the dressing room, we should keep our heads up and be proud of what we did this year.”
Alan Koch started the exact same 11 players that started last weekend in the penalty-kick victory over Nashville SC. The formation changed from the visual below to a 4-4-2 in the second half, with Ledesma moving up to join Adi.
Bone – Albadawi (79′ McLaughlin) – Ledesma
Gibson (61′ Walker) – Alashe
Smith (86′ Welshman) – Lasso – Barrett – Hoyte
Another exit from the playoffs, earlier than expected, leaves FC Cincinnati fans wanting more as they exit the United Soccer League. There will be a day to reflect on the loss and put it in perspective, given a season full of fine moments. That quiet reflection won’t last for long though. Monday is expected to be a day full of team news and player exits, as FC Cincinnati turns the chapter and looks forward to its first division future.
Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press as we put a finishing touch on the 2018 season and keep you filled-in on the conclusion of the USL Cup Playoffs.
Orange & Blue Press’ Match Program supplies the information and fast facts you need for FC Cincinnati’s playoff meeting with New York Red Bulls II.
One down, three to go. FC Cincinnati continues their quest for the USL Cup this Saturday against perennial Eastern Conference contender New York Red Bulls II. It’s another high-stakes, winner-takes-all matinee at Nippert Stadium. The Orange & Blue advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals after a grueling 1-1 draw with Nashville SC that was settled by penalty kicks. Kenny Walker delivered the decisive spot kick to win the shootout 6-5 after Nashville SC’s Justin Davis put his attempt over the crossbar. It’s the first time FCC has advanced to the conference semifinal in their three-year history.
New York Red Bulls II punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference semis by beating the Charleston Battery 1-0 on the road. A 21st-minute Tom Barlow strike and some tidy defending were enough to seal the victory. For more details on these teams’ recent head-to-head-history and predictions for both semifinals in the East, check out Orange & Blue Press’ article by Geoff Tebbetts.
Alan Koch’s squad finished 25 points ahead of a talented but inconsistent Red Bulls II squad during the regular season. The Orange & Blue, of course, are still carrying a USL-record unbeaten streak heading into this playoff match. That streak currently stands at 24 games (17-0-7). The Baby Bulls are the #5 seed and are in sizzling form. They come into the contest on a 7-game unbeaten run that includes four straight wins.
There are no major injuries for FC Cincinnati ahead of Saturday’s contest. However, the squad may still be without striker Danni König. The Danish forward and double-digit goalscorer returned home last week citing personal reasons. The FCC jerseys worn last Saturday against Nashville donned a small 11 on the sleeve to recognize his absence.
Here’s a heavy dose of fast facts to get you ready for this Eastern Conference semifinal showdown.
This contest features two of the best offenses in the USL. FC Cincinnati has 73 goals so far in 2018 and New York Red Bulls II is right behind with 72. Those are the third and fourth highest totals in the league. FC Cincinnati finished the regular season with the highest goal total, but Orange County FC (74) and Louisville City FC (75) leapfrogged them last week with high-scoring playoff matches.
Red Bulls II has one of the worst defenses in the league and conceded 24 more goals than FCC during the regular season (59). Only 7 teams allowed more goals than New York, and none of them made the playoffs. John Wolyniec’s squad only kept 5 clean sheets compared to FCC’s 15. However, they’ve been stingy recently, conceding only 2 goals in their last 3 matches.
New York likes to do their damage from close range. Of their 72 goals, only 6 have been scored from outside the 18-yard box (8%). In comparison, FCC has scored 22% of their goals from outside the box in 2018.
Red Bulls II have created three times as many penalties kick opportunities as FCC (12 to 4). They have only converted 66% of those spot-kicks though, and FCC has converted all 4 of their attempts.
NYRBII’s Jared Stroud and Tom Barlow are players to watch as they account for 5 of the team’s last 7 goals. Barlow has 3 and Stroud has 2 over their last 4 matches.
Corben Bone is red-hot in Orange & Blue with three goals in the last 2 games. If you include last weekend’s playoff strike, he now has the second most goals of any FCC player in 2018. Bone also joined Eric Stevenson as only one of two FCC players to score a playoff goal.
Spencer Richey is coming off of his third five-save match of 2018 against Nashville SC, and FCC is 11-1-3 this season when he’s between the sticks. Jack Stern’s goalkeeping squad needs to be at their best again on Saturday to stop a potent Red Bulls II attack.
Stay tuned to Orange & Blue Press for more coverage of FC Cincinnati’s playoff match versus New York Red Bulls 2.
Good, because the matches only get tougher from here.
Now that the opening weekend has come and gone, the smoke has cleared to present two very similar matches in the East. Independent teams dominated the table in the regular season, but two “MLS 2” squads snuck up on their opponents for significant upsets. While one remaining challenge is a rematch from last year’s playoffs (Louisville vs. Bethlehem), the other is a “rematch” of fanbases from the 2017 U.S. Open Cup semifinal (Cincinnati vs. New York).
Considering that Louisville and New York were in similar situations last year, the stage could be set for a rubber match between LCFC and the Baby Bulls. However, Cincinnati’s 24-match unbeaten streak cannot be ignored, and Bethlehem is a much leaner team than they were last year. Any of the four outcomes for a conference final are still possible.
Okay, so I didn’t see the Steel overcoming the Steel Army. 75% is still a good percentage for predicting the future. Let’s ride the hand that Lady Luck dealt and make some more guesses.
Conference Semi-Final Predictions
#1 FC Cincinnati (23-3-9) vs. #5 New York Red Bulls II (14-8-13)
Cincinnati and New York are level in the six matches they have faced each other (3-3-0). New York holds a +3 goal differential, but FC Cincinnati currently holds a 3-game winning streak.
People have been debating who FC Cincinnati’s rivals may be in Major League Soccer next year. True, their nearest foes are Columbus and Chicago. Both are within driving distance, and both have fallen by the sword of the Knifey Lions. However, I would argue that perhaps the deepest bond might be with the New York Red Bulls. Despite the accolades thrown about last year, the loss against the MLS squad in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals stung much worse than the loss against Minnesota United this year.
It might not be visible, but the friction between FC Cincinnati and the Baby Bulls is there. In 2016, New York was the one team that FCC could not garner a single point against. The 2-1 loss at Nippert was one thing, but the early red card on Mitch Hildebrandt and the obvious VAR advantage made the 2-0 loss on the road harder to swallow. It didn’t get any better from the embarrassing 4-0 loss on the road in 2017. Both losses were brutal signals that the team wasn’t ready. It also proved that New York had a glut of rich talent in their system, while Cincinnati had to depend on synergy and experience.
However, the tidal wave has receded ever so slightly. A record 30,417 came to the last home game of 2017 to watch the Orange & Blue trounce the Red & Yellow 4-2. The results have been closer this year, but more to our liking. Goals by Emmanuel Ledesma and Danni Konig followed a missed penalty kick by the Bulls’ Brian White to give FCC a 2-1 win on the road to start their current 24-game unbeaten streak. The home game followed a similar pattern, as Ledesma fed Forrest Lasso and Paddy Barrett on set pieces for a 2-1 victory.
The Baby Bulls tend to leave more of their offense at home (49 goals at home, 23 on the road), but they didn’t need many goals last week. Tom Barlow’s goal in the 21st minute lasted the full 90 minutes, and goalkeeper Evan Louro made 4 saves to preserve a 1-0 victory over Charleston. Don’t look now, but that victory was New York’s third win in their last three road games.
Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati needed all 120 minutes and maybe a bit of luck from Mother Nature. Much like the regular season, the Orange & Blue couldn’t figure out Nashville SC. The 1-1 draw finally ended when Justin Davis popped up his penalty kick and Kenny Walker buried his. The goal from Corben Bone in the 95th minute was his 12th in USL play this season and his ninth in the last 12 matches. Meanwhile, Spencer Richey had arguably his best game of the season, making 5 saves to keep out a flood of late attacks.
Prediction: FC Cincinnati 2, New York 1 (after extra time)
I’m already feeling like I’m making the wrong choice. It would be easy to think this game could be an offensive onslaught. New York took 626 shots over their 34-game season, the most in the USL, and scored 71 in the process. Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati was the most accurate, leading the USL with 72 goals and a hefty 21% conversion rate.
Still, Cincinnati’s wins this year were victories on defense. Over both games against Cincinnati, the Baby Bulls led in shots (30-17) but trailed in shots on target (4-8). This stonewalling was partly due to the back line’s ability to block shots. They deflected 9 in total and kept New York’s shooting accuracy to a measly 13.3%. If Cincinnati expects a win, Paddy Barrett and Forrest Lasso need to be physical and unafraid. Both scored on the Baby Bulls last time, but they’ll need to be defense-minded in this one.
#2 Louisville City FC (20-6-9) vs. #6 Bethlehem Steel FC (14-12-9)
Louisville City leads the overall series (4-0-3) and enjoys a +9 goal differential.
As the record shows, this is hardly a rivalry. Bethlehem was the first pelt that Louisville claimed in the postseason last year, and the contest wasn’t even close. Louisville had lost at home only twice in 2017, while Bethlehem had limped into the playoffs. James O’Connor’s boys fired 12 shots on target against the Steel in the first round, an astounding 66.7% in accuracy. All Bethlehem could do is rack up frustration and four yellow cards on the way to a 4-0 throttling by the Derby City.
While Louisville’s starting eleven has been relatively unchanged over the season, Bethlehem coach Brendan Burke has tinkered with his lineup. The statistics for the two teams were almost identical in their Week 1 clash at Louisville. However, Louisville attacked goalkeeper Jake McGuire from his left constantly, putting the 3-1 game away early. The rematch at Bethlehem featured a heavy amount of possession by Louisville (65-35), but the use of 31-year-old James Chambers as the captain calmed the Steel down. Bethlehem fired as many shots as Louisville and captured a 0-0 draw.
Bethlehem’s lineup got even younger for their playoff match against Pittsburgh. Burke started six players who were under 20 years old, but it was Santi Moar (1 assist) and Chambers (1 goal) who led the team. Bethlehem’s offense—4th in the East in goal differential—put just enough on the board to force Pittsburgh’s goalkeeper to beat them in penalty kicks. The Steel outlasted Pittsburgh 10-9 in penalty kicks, advancing when Raymond Lee missed his last opportunity.
Louisville’s path was much simpler. The Coopers dominated again in possession (57-43) and put 10 shots on target against Indy Eleven. A brace from Niall McCabe put the game away early in the second half, and thoughts of a comeback were squashed by a brilliant set-piece goal. Louisville’s 4-1 win was nothing new, as they have never lost a playoff game at Slugger Field in eight matches. Their only two postseason losses have been on the road (2015 at Rochester, 2016 at New York).
Prediction: Louisville City 4, Bethlehem 2.
Not many of us predicted Bethlehem would slug back against a strong Pittsburgh defense. Bob Lilley had been automatic in the first round of the playoffs, but perhaps the writing had been on the wall. Pittsburgh had drawn with their opponents 14 times over the season, tied for first in the East. The door was left open for Bethlehem to take command against a team that had faced only one penalty kick all season.
However, if there’s anything close to an automatic win, it should be this week. Since their loss to Cincinnati, Louisville is undefeated in their last eight matches (7-0-1). Their offense has trucked opponents with a combined 23-9 scoreline over that span. Eight of those goals have come from Cameron Lancaster, and at least one more should come this week. Bethlehem can still perform better than their playoff game last year, but experience should trump youth in this one.
If you’re a fan of intense rivalries with more than just bragging rights on the line, you probably agree with my picks, but not everyone wants a postseason Dirty River Derby. What are your predictions for this stage of the playoffs? Let us know!
Stay tuned to Orange and Blue Press for more on the FC Cincinnati match against New York this weekend.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.