FC Cincinnati Waves Goodbye to Nippert Stadium (and the Playoffs)

UC’s venerable stadium deserved to go out with a massive soccer celebration, but reality bites.

Nippert Stadium played a pivotal role in FC Cincinnati’s elevation from the United Soccer League to Major League Soccer, with its seating capacity and central location able to fulfill the appetite of a dormant-turned-fervent soccer city. Per tabulations made by The Enquirer, entering last night’s finale for the franchise at the 106-year-old football stadium, FCC had won or drawn 60 of the 83 of the matches it hosted there. An energized fanbase and upstart franchise transformed a nondescript, benches-filled concrete bowl into a veritable soccer stronghold defined by the Bailey’s steady clamor and an overall festive atmosphere.

 

FC Cincinnati’s concluding Nippert match October 28 against Sporting Kansas City deserved much more pageantry than COVID-19 would allow. And unfortunately, not only did SKC’s 1-0 victory—which pushed it from second to first in the Western Conference—spoil the going-away party, the loss all but eliminated any faint playoff hopes harbored by the hosts.

The cold rain that began coming down at the final whistle drove home the reality of yet another muddled, frustrating showing from a team that at times exhibits clear progress following the Great Tire Fire of 2019 but remains on track for a second successive season with the fewest points in MLS. FCC’s past two games have served as additional examples of how the club has been both unlucky at critical junctures of matches and unable to seize on any sort of positive momentum during a game—while also serving as a clear reminder of the distance to be traversed on the path to contention.

FC Cincinnati came into the match five points back of the 10th and final playoff slot in the East, with just two matches afterwards to mount a playoff charge: at Atlanta on Sunday night and at Inter Miami on November 8. The Orange and Blue needed a draw, at minimum, last night; if we’re playing the odds, they really needed a victory (and some help from other teams) to at least clear the runway for a miracle dash at the club’s first MLS playoff appearance.

The first half was a vanilla effort from both sides until Jurgen Locadia blasted a shot off SKC goalkeeper Tim Melia in the waning seconds. That was the first shot on goal for either team in a half in which FC Cincinnati retained 65 percent of the possession playing out of its Dutch brain trust’s preferred 4-3-3 formation. Sporting KC were content to concede custody of the ball in favor of pressing the hosts high up the pitch, particularly on the flanks, in hopes of creating a turnover or two along a back line that once again started three backups.

The visitors started strong to begin the second 45 minutes and were rewarded when Roger Espinoza scored in the 57th minute via a dandy pullback assist by stud striker Alan Pulido. Mere minutes later, however, Frankie Amaya won a penalty for FC Cincinnati. A lengthy VAR review followed, which may have given Siem de Jong enough time to recall the number of sitters he’s failed to put on target this season. (He sent one over the crossbar in the 8th minute). In fairness to de Jong, his ensuing penalty attempt was nearly perfect; it slammed into the right post, denying the Dutchman his first goal of the season.

After coming on as a substitute, backup striker Brandon Vazquez—the recipient of a contract extension this week—made a lovely turn outside the box and forced a last-ditch deflection by Melia that clanged off that same right post. Incredibly, all three officials missed Melia’s touch, which should’ve given FCC a corner kick, and the misfortune was a too-soon reminder of the injustice done in the Minnesota match last weekend. FC Cincinnati did have a feel-good moment late, as Jimmy McLaughlin made his first appearance in a game in almost exactly two years. The attacking midfielder is the last remaining member of FCC’s original squad in 2016, and thus he wound up playing in the club’s first and last game at Nippert.

Last weekend vs. Minnesota, FC Cincinnati played well enough to definitely net a draw and maybe even win, but in the end they found a way to slip on a banana peel and fall victim to bad luck. Before delving back into the negativity, credit to Jaap Stam for continuing to try shit in an attempt to jumpstart a historically inept offense. As pointed out by ESPN, FC Cincinnati was averaging 0.55 goals per game coming into last night’s game, needing four goals by the end of the season to clear the dishonorable benchmark of 0.65 set by 2013 D.C. United. Remember that while FCC allowed the most goals in MLS history last year, they also scored the fewest during the 2019 campaign.

So, with Locadia available but not fit enough to start and Vazquez out injured against Minnesota, Stam started Álvaro Barreal, de Jong, and Joe Gyau at the top of the 4-3-3, with de Jong slipping into a false nine role—he played the same position last night—in an attempt to draw out Minnesota’s center backs out and allow Barreal and Gyau to run in behind de Jong.

FCC had their chances through the first half. There was de Jong’s header right at Minnesota goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair, Tom Pettersson popping a deflected corner over the crossbar, Barreal picking the pocket of a Minnesota defender but sending a chip-shot over the net, and de Jong skying a golden one-timer minutes before halftime. The missed chances led to heartbreak, as Minnesota’s Aaron Schoenfeld punched home the game’s lone goal after FC Cincinnati failed to clear their lines following a 92nd-minute corner kick. In FCC’s defense, the corner kick should have never taken place, with Minnesota’s Emanuel Reynoso appearing to touch the ball last before it went out of bounds.

FC Cincinnati’s home record this season likely would have been better with Nippert’s usual charged atmosphere, but the final tally in nine fan-less contests at its now-former Clifton Heights fortress in 2020 was four defeats, four draws, and one measly win. The playoffs will have to wait for (at least) another year.

Stay tuned next week for a recap of the season and a preview of what I think will be a defining offseason for the club ahead of the 2021 campaign and the West End Stadium’s debut.

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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