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“It’s hard to pick out a particular moment from last year’s Open Cup because each moment, each game, was history for our club,” said midfielder Corben Bone. He chooses his words carefully when describing the feelings he had at the time. When pressed, he selects the Fourth Round game when Columbus Crew brought a strong side to Nippert, on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. He was injured and couldn’t play, so he watched from up in the stands – just one in an Open Cup record crowd of 30,160 (that broke the previous record by a full 10,000). “I got to feel what it was like to be up in that,” he remembered. “I knew how awesome it was to experience from down on the field, but being up there with the fans, going through what they go through, it brought it home in a realer way. My whole perspective changed that day in the stands. Seeing that passion up close. I got to see what it meant and what we’re playing for.”
(Djiby Fall scored four goals for FC Cincinnati in last year's Cup - but now he's gone after an off-season shake-up)
Senegalese striker Djiby Fall scored the only goal that day - a header in the 64th minute. It came right in front of the Bailey – that elevated stand where the most committed fans bounce and set off smoke canisters and do their level best to sway a result their team’s way. “It was huge for a rivalry that hadn’t even been born yet. It was huge for the whole state,” added Bone, a former Chicago Fire player who’s been with FC Cincinnati since their first season in 2016. “There was so much hype around that game and I was so bummed I couldn’t play – but being in the stands was a blessing in disguise for me.”
Just the Beginning
If it ended there, a win over the closest geographical rival from the top tier of Major League Soccer, it would have been an achievement worth noting for FC Cincinnati. But it was just the beginning. The coin flip went their way and they drew another home game against four-time Open Cup champs Chicago Fire in the Round of Sixteen. “This is a special memory for my career – I’ll remember that Chicago Fire game as long as I live,” said Jimmy McLaughlin who came off the bench in the 66th minute with the game tied at 0-0. He’s listed as a midfielder, but he’s a goal-hunter. He terrorized the Chicago defense with his speed and trickery and nearly settled the affair for Cincinnati in extra-time. But the game had more to offer. More drama. More adrenaline. “The way the game swung back and forth, up and back with both sides having chances to score. The shootout. The final save. The celebrations. It was a story-book ending.”
FCC goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt was the hero this time. The Michigan native saved a final spot-kick from Juninho and sent his side of underdogs through to the Quarterfinals. Bastian Schweinsteiger – a World Cup and Champions League winner, a global icon – left with the rest of his Fire teammates as losers on the night. The game was televised live on ESPN and 32,287 fans – a true sell-out crowd – watched from up in the stands of the 100-year old American football stadium. “It’s massive. What the fans do,” added McLaughlin, back for another season with the club. “Especially when we’re up against an MLS team. Our crowd makes it more even. It’s a huge advantage – no one has fans like our fans. We were able to use that momentum and passion of the crowd and the fans and turn it into something on the field.”
(The win over Chicago Fire - live on ESPN & before a 32,287-strong crowd - was the pinnacle of FCC's 2017 Cup run)
Nazmi Albadawi, last year of USL’s North Carolina FC – the club where he went from a ball boy to an on-field hero, also got caught up in the emotion of FC Cincinnati’s Cup run. “I was as hooked as anyone last year,” said the midfield schemer, who joined the Southern Ohio club in the off-season and now has a chance to soak in the atmosphere of Nippert in an Open Cup run that’s already off to a fine start with a pair wins over amateurs Detroit City FC and league rivals Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL). Albadawi is one of nine changes in the FC Cincinnati side that made so much magic last year – including the departure of Hildebrandt, tournament top-scorer Fall and captain and local hero Austin Berry, who retired and joined the team’s technical staff as a strength and conditioning coach. “I was friends with a couple of the guys in the team,” said Albadawi. “But I also watched and followed the run just as a fan of something amazing happening in the game. It was special to see what the environment was like here and the passion the city had for the Cup and the game and their team.”
A road game followed the win over Chicago. FC Cincinnati had to travel to South Florida twice in order to finally get the better of Miami FC (then of the NASL) as dangerous weather forced a postponement of the original date.
The dream finally came to an end at the Semifinal stage, when Nippert welcomed New York Red Bulls – a team still hungry for a first piece of major silverware. Despite taking a 2-0 lead on the night, the home side fell in extra time when the ruthless Bradley Wright-Phillips (who tied Fall and Stefano Pinho as the tournament’s top-scorer) struck to settle the affair and send FC Cincy out.
While lightning rarely strikes the same place twice, FC Cincinnati are aiming to give that little bit more again this year. The whole city is abuzz and awash in recent news that their beloved club will join MLS next season, but they’re still about the serious business of powering through the USL and the Open Cup this year. They’re pros after all – and despite what golden roads they’ll travel in the future, there’s a job to be done now in the second division and as underdogs again in the Cup. “The club and the city and the staff have worked so hard to get the team to MLS,” said defender Justin Hoyte just days after the big announcement. “But really our focus has to the be on the job at hand right now. The job goes on and we want to win every game in front of us. Once that’s finished then we can focus on the next thing.”
(FC Cincinnati are off to another fine start in the Cup this year with a pair of wins and seven goals scored)
Flying High Early
They’re already flying in the league, first place in Group A after 12 games and their 3-1 win in the last Round of the Cup saw them hand a lesson to Pittsburgh Riverhounds – a side that was undefeated up to that point and had yet to concede at home. And even Hoyte, who’s played at Old Trafford and St James’ Park and many more of the cathedrals of the English game during his time with Arsenal and Middlesbrough, considers Nippert a special place to be. “I didn’t expect anything like this when I first came to America. I was really shocked and blown away by it when I signed on.” Injured early in his time with the club, Hoyte remembers watching the Nippert faithful – the pride, Die Innenstadt, the Legion and all the rest – make their infamous and noisy march into the stadium. “When I saw that march I thought it was so unique and special and I just knew I was in a special place with special fans. And since that day it’s just grown and grown.”
FC Cincinnati’s players are not the type to get misty-eyed with nostalgia. This is not a club that lives in the past. They’re driving on, making big plans for life in Major League Soccer and a new soccer specific stadium. But for now, there’s work to do. There’s a tradition to maintain, especially in the Cup. And there’s unfinished business to take care of. Their first game at Nippert in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup comes on Wednesday against MLS side Minnesota United. “We’re still underdogs,” McLaughlin is quick to remind. And it’s a chance for more magic, more noise and more success at a club whose rise has been nothing shy of astonishing. “It’s bitter-sweet looking back on how our run ended last year,” said Bone, eyes locked on the tests to come. “It felt like we had more to give.”