This is not FC Cincinnati’s first Open Cup rodeo.
They climbed to the Semifinals as a second-division club well before joining the elite of MLS in 2019. And it’s fair to say that without the huge crowds and boundless enthusiasm they generated on their 2017 run to our Last Four, as part of the USL Championship, these heady days as Major League Soccer frontrunners would have remained a distant dream for the Queen City.
It all started with a win in the Fourth Round over local MLS side Columbus Crew on June 14, 2017.
FC Cincy’s Senegalese striker, Djiby Fall, buried a header in the 64th minute in front of 30,160 fans. It settled the affair (1-0) as the home side pulled off their first Cupset of a historic run (and gave birth to the Hell is Real Derby in the bargain).
“It all just kind of caught fire from there,” said Corben Bone, influential midfielder in that 2017 campaign. “The atmosphere was huge and the city got right behind us. The support was just tremendous. It continued to grow and grow.
“The Open Cup had so much to do with that,” he added.
“We had a hidden gem here in Cincinnati that no one knew about,” said the team’s 2017 captain Austin Barry, a local hero born and raised in the city. “It’s awesome every single day.”
That Fourth Round win over Columbus was played at Nippert Stadium. The passion and pride alive in today’s brand-new TQL Stadium (just two miles down the road) has its roots in that old American football stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati.
Nippert rocked and swayed in a special way those days.
The original Bailey, where fans “perched like weird birds” according to longtime FC Cincinnati supporter Payne Rankin, was a section behind one of Nippert’s goals where the supporters were elevated above the opposing goalkeeper’s head for half of every game.
It’s no surprise that the section of today’s TQL Stadium reserved for the club’s hardest-core fans retains the original name (the Bailey) from Nippert, where the seeds of today’s massive successes were planted.
After the Columbus win came another huge home game against the four-time Open Cup-champion Chicago Fire of MLS. Broadcast live on ESPN’s flagship channel – and played in front of a record crowd of 32,287 fans at Nippert – the game ended in penalties after 120 minutes tangled at 0-0.
Goalkeeper and 2017 talisman Mitch Hildebrandt – now part of the technical staff at MLS side St Louis City SC – provided the indelible image of that 2017 Open Cup with his crucial save on Nemanja Nikolic. It sent FC Cincinnati – up and comers from the lower leagues – through to the Quarterfinals.
“People still talk about that game to this day,” said Bone about the win over the Fire, his former club. “It was a huge moment in the history of this club.”
Hildebrandt was in full agreement: “There was something so special going on in the Open Cup and the mentality in the locker room was just unreal.”
Momentum – key to any Open Cup run – was also building.
In that Last Eight, FC Cincy met a fellow second-division side. Perhaps a relief from playing top-tier opposition, they had to go out on the road to meet Miami FC. And there, at Ricardo Silva Stadium after a postponement due to heavy weather, the visitors showed they were no one-trick ponies.
Fall scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win that paved the way to the Semifinals.
The Open Cup Last Four is rarefied air for any non-MLS team. And it looked like FC Cincinnati – back at home in front of a huge crowd at Nippert and not having conceded a goal in their five games – were going to take it one step further and reach the Final.
They were 2-0 up on the New York Red Bulls in the 75th minute thanks to goals from Bone and Barry.
“We really wanted to win the Open Cup, it was a priority for us that year,” said 2017 NYRB captain Sacha Kljestan. “We’d seen them [FC Cincinnati] beat Columbus and Chicago and we saw the crowds they were getting.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” he added.
Klejstan’s Red Bulls, coached by Jesse Marsch and with a young Tyler Adams in the team, stormed back. One of the aces of that era’s MLS – Bradley-Wright Phillips – scored twice to break the hearts of the home fans in a 3-2 extra-time win for the visitors (who would go on to finish runners-up that year to Sporting Kansas City).
Many of the fans who’ll fill the new Bailey to its bursting point on Wednesday, August 23rd, when Lionel Messi and his Inter Miami come to town, will remember that moment of so-close-yet-so-far agony six summers ago in the Open Cup Semis.
But with stars of their own to lean on now, like MLS All Star Team captain Lucho Acosta and USMNT striker Brandon Vazquez, the one-time underdogs from Ohio are now the favorites.
Oh, how those tables can turn.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.