Sunday evening brought forth several additional firsts for FC Cincinnati. First home game in Major League Soccer. First lead. First multi-goal game. First shutout. First victory. And first ass-kicking: FC Cincinnati 3, defending Western Conference champion Portland Timbers 0.
Two weeks after an embarrassing, dose-of-reality 4-1 defeat at Seattle in its MLS debut, FCC dished out its own drubbing against Portland, which has qualified for the postseason three times over the past four seasons. Factor in the Orange and Blue’s Week 2 draw at defending league champion Atlanta, and MLS’s new noisy neighbors suddenly look like they belong.
“You never quite know how you’re going to respond to getting punched in the face,” FC Cincinnati head coach Alan Koch said after the game. “We went to Seattle and got punched in the face a few times, and saw a positive response from our players in the preparation for Atlanta—and we saw an even better response [vs. Portland].”
Sunday evening was a night to cherish for FCC, a thorough domination of one of the league’s steadiest franchises in front of a sell-out crowd of 32,250 and a national television audience. As the seconds ticked down to the final whistle, multiple players raised the roof, attempting to extract even more noise from the Nippert Stadium faithful. Defender Nick Hagglund, a Cincinnati native who played at Lakota West and Xavier, grabbed the game ball and gestured to the crowd, whose “FCC! FCC! FCC!” surely reverberated throughout Clifton. It was a night reminiscent of the unforgettable evenings FC Cincinnati delivered in the United Soccer League, such as its run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals two summers ago and its first playoff triumph last fall.
As the weeks move on and the franchise firsts decrease, the focus will shift off of FC Cincinnati’s expansion status and toward its play on the field. With that in mind, Sunday was another step forward in a technical sense. After failing to crack 40 percent possession in either of its first two matches, FCC held the ball for nearly half the game (49 percent) vs. Portland. And after notching only four shots on goal and a single corner kick against Seattle and Atlanta, FCC had seven shots on target and 10 corners on Sunday.
“We had a tough first weekend,” said forward Darren Mattocks, who subbed on for an injured Fanendo Adi at halftime. “Week by week, we’ve had continued improvement.”
Everyone associated with FC Cincinnati seemed to enjoy themselves on Sunday, including MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Pre-game, Garber toured the West End stadium site and had lunch in Over-the-Rhine. FCC can take solace in knowing that its sudden, well-organized rise to stardom altered the way MLS plots its expansion criteria, with Garber admitting as much when he met with the media at halftime.
“When we started this [expansion] process, we were thinking about markets that had soccer history as one of the key drivers as to whether the team would be successful. I’m convinced now that soccer can be successful in any market in this country at the MLS level,” said Garber, noting that he didn’t fully comprehend the success FCC was experiencing until he attended the club’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal match vs. the New York Red Bulls in 2017.
It’s part of Garber’s job to pump up each of the league’s clubs, but elevating that praise to another level by essentially dubbing FC Cincinnati a trailblazing franchise reaffirms what I thought after FCC was admitted to MLS last spring: The league has high hopes for its newest team, medium Midwestern market be damned. A dream evening that featured a supporters march to remember and a saucy backheel goal will live on in Cincinnati sports history. And to reverse-paraphrase Bill Belichick, FC Cincinnati is now on to New England this Sunday. What will it do for an encore?