FC Cincinnati (Likely) Squashed Their Playoff Hopes

A surprise victory over Columbus was followed by a dud against the league’s worst team, making FCC’s final four matches “must win” games.

Last Wednesday, FC Cincinnati began its two-match week by cracking open the door into the Eastern Conference playoff race. But by Sunday night, that same door had swung nearly shut. Such was the five-day stretch for FC Cincinnati’s patched-together Band of Misfits, stunning big brother Columbus Crew 2-1 midweek before a crushing 2-1 setback vs. D.C. United, the worst team in Major League Soccer. With four matches remaining in the regular season, FC Cincinnati (16 points) is four points out of the East’s 10th and final playoff spot.

 

With failing team health and a golden opportunity missed against D.C. United, though, it’s difficult to envision the Orange and Blue mustering the points—FC Cincinnati will need at least seven points from those four matches, I think—required to sneak on in to the postseason. (Shoutout to the 2020 Reds!)

I doubt even head coach Jaap Stam saw last week’s result coming vs. Columbus. FC Cincinnati’s third-choice goalkeeper, Bobby Edwards, made his first-ever MLS start and saw his first minutes of the season because of injuries to starter Przemyslaw Tytoń and backup Spencer Richey. The club was also forced to start backup center backs Tom Pettersson (fresh off a bout with mononucleosis) and Nick Hagglund thanks to injuries to starters Kendall Waston and Maikel van der Werff. Starting right back Mathieu Deplagne and starting striker Jurgen Locadia were also unavailable via injury. Defensive midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo made his first MLS start. Frankie Amaya and Joe Gyau, two typical starters, began the game on the bench, simply because they’ve been run into the ground and needed a rest. And other than those rested starters, bench options were lacking, as the subs included two recently recalled two USL loanees (striker Rashawn Dally and midfielder Tommy McCabe) and 17-year-old goalkeeper Beckham Sunderland, who became the first player to move up from the club’s academy to the first team roster. Not exactly inspiring stuff.

And you know what? The Band of Misfits raced around like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and overran Columbus in the first half, the highlight being Yuya Kubo burying a penalty in the 17th minute that ended a goal-less streak of five-plus matches for FC Cincinnati. Through 43 minutes, the Crew had logged zero shots and zero corners.

Naturally, a minute later, Pettersson clumsily handed the visitors a penalty. The hosts could have wilted at half, entering the break level despite vastly outperforming their opponents. But just four minutes into the second half, Hagglund delivered a thundering header off a set piece to push FC Cincinnati ahead 2-1. It was the 10th shot for FCC, with Columbus having recorded just one.

FCC staved off Columbus for the win, accomplishing a few firsts in the process: first result in five matches; first home victory in 2020 in six tries; and first win vs. Columbus in six MLS matches between the Hell Is Real rivals. It was a truly inspired performance by a shorthanded squad.

A victory last Sunday against D.C. United would have immediately re-inserted FC Cincinnati into the race for the East’s final playoff spot, putting them a point behind 10th-place Chicago. And make no mistake about it, D.C. United were (and still are) a club in disarray. They had recorded just 12 points from league 18 matches and were winless over their past nine games, which obviously factored into the firing of the club’s longtime head coach, Ben Olsen, on October 8. The Orange and Blue were even helped out by 11th-place Atlanta and 12th-place Inter Miami, each of whom dropped their weekend matches, while Chicago drew its game. This enviable scenario was inconceivable just a week ago for FC Cincinnati.

And instead of seizing the moment, FC Cincinnati delivered a dud, as the Band of Misfits crashed back to Earth. Worse was the fact that D.C. United wasn’t even impressive, aside from submitting an organized defensive press. The lineup from Columbus was unchanged except for Amaya replacing the injured Kubo and Gyau reclaiming his starting spot. FC Cincinnati were frisky through the first 15 minutes, but lost their way after that. Its general malaise had gone unpunished until Edwards gifted D.C. United a goal after he saved a ball going out of bounds right onto the foot of Donovan Pines in the 36th minute.

The performance was unchanged in the second half, as FCC committed turnover after turnover, whether it was from lethargic build-up play from the back or sending wayward passes across the midfield. Against a more formidable foe, the hosts would have been down 2-0 or 3-0 midway through the second half. But because FC Cincinnati were playing an opponent with a similar capacity for gaffes, they were granted a (temporary) reprieve in the 66th minute. D.C. United goalkeeper Chris Seitz spilled an unremarkable shot by Siem de Jong, allowing striker Brandon Vazquez to pounce and bury the rebound into the back of the net. But FCC, incapable of having nice things, failed to properly build on the handout, and in the 78th minute, after yet another turnover, D.C. United struck once more. After Edwards stretched the entirety of his 6-6 frame to stop an initial shot, Chris Odoi-Atsem punched home the rebound. The visitors held on for their first victory in 10 matches.

For whatever reason, the same backups and new integrations into the team that punched above their weight vs. Columbus, one of the East’s better sides, failed to repeat the same effort against a far worse squad. FC Cincinnati will receive a full week of rest, and hopefully some injured players can return and reinforce the team ahead of Saturday night’s critical match vs. Minnesota, which sits fifth in the West standings and defeated visiting FCC 2-0 on October 3.

After that, the rest of FC Cincinnati’s slate is as follows: home October 28 vs. Sporting Kansas City (third in the West), likely the last game the club will play at Nippert Stadium; at Atlanta United on November 1; and at Inter Miami on November 8. Reaching the postseason would be a massive, massive accomplishment for a side that endured a brief high at MLS Is Back but has struggled mightily in the regular season restart.

FC Cincinnati’s four-match season begins Saturday evening at Nippert.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Off the pitch, he is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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