Late Saturday afternoon, as Kenney Walker stood on the Nippert Stadium turf with just a soccer ball and the biggest moment in the history of FC Cincinnati at his feet—before the sun-drenched field morphed into a Halloween-themed Boeing wind tunnel—I was reminded of how many times I’d personally witnessed The Playoff Drought extended in person. The Bengals’ collapse against the Chargers in January 2014. The hapless and hopeless effort vs. the Colts in Indianapolis a year later. The banana-peel-slip-of-a-loss against the Steelers after that. I was also planted along the third-base line in 2010 when the Phillies polished off their National League Division Series sweep of the Reds.
Before Walker’s potential game-winning penalty for FC Cincinnati against Nashville SC in a United Soccer League quarterfinal tilt, the gentleman sitting in front of me—who was probably regretting his choice of shorts after the 30-degree temperature drop that occurred from the game’s onset to the penalty shootout—was talking about The Drought. After the penalty kick, the security guard, his voice crystal clear in spite of the butcher knife-sharp gusts of wind, was talking about The Drought. The first text I received after the game referenced The Drought.
Courtesy of Walker’s steely nerve and deft touch, the city of Cincinnati’s Playoff Advancement Drought and Home Playoff Win Drought by their professional sporting outfits reached their merciful conclusions. (Some may argue that The Drought is not truly over; more on that later.) Walker’s deciding penalty kick arrived after the two teams played to a scoreless draw after 90-plus minutes of regulation and to a 1-1 stalemate after 30-plus minutes of overtime.
Prior the game, the vibe was far less intense than one would anticipate for a do-or-die playoff contest, with the vibe more Saturday Night at the Library than Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. And the longer FC Cincinnati failed to put away Nashville, the more anxious the Nippert mob grew. Speaking of the crowd, Nippert welcomed just 20,127 spectators on Saturday, well below FCC’s season average of 25,717. I found the total curiously low. Perhaps the timing of the UC football game played a role in the disappointing attendance and atmosphere; the Bearcats’ overtime loss at Temple wrapped up within close range of the match’s 4 p.m. start.
Or maybe would-be-attendees expected that FCC—the USL regular-season champions and owners of a 23-game unbeaten streak—would whitewash eighth-seeded Nashville back to Music Row. And yet this line of thinking would have completely ignored the teams’ previous three forays in 2018, each of which ended in draws. The temperature was also quirky with 60 degrees and sunlight giving way to a wicked windstorm and black skies by the time the penalty shootout started two hours later.
Foreboding, all of this bad juju was. Foretelling of coming defeat, it was not. But not by much.
FC Cincinnati came thisclose to extending the city’s streak of playoff misery. If any team deserved to win in regulation on Saturday, it was Nashville. The hosts controlled the affair in the first half-hour, but after that the visitors’ disciplined defensive tactics took hold—Nashville conceded the second-fewest goals during the regular season, while FC Cincinnati was the league’s top scoring outfit—and Nashville’s counterattacks berthed the game’s best scoring chances. A few of those efforts required extraordinary saves from FCC goalkeeper Spencer Richey; others necessitated blind luck, including an impressive strike at goal that struck the right post in the northeast end zone, nearly breaking The Bailey’s collective heart.
FCC was outfoxed tactically, too. The Orange and Blue had no problem retaining possession—they held the ball 60 percent of the time—but cracking Nashville’s defensive shell proved difficult, and the team appeared out of ideas not long after halftime. Head coach Alan Koch elected to wait until the 68th minute to make a change with Walker, but it wasn’t until Jimmy McLaughlin’s insertion in the 85th minute that FC Cincinnati regained some of its typical offensive verve.
Corben Bone finally broke through the Nashville resistance in the 95th minute during the first overtime period, but a deflected shot by Nashville’s Bradley Bourgeois kept FCC from victory five minutes from the end of the second overtime. Despite the windy weather, the teams were clinical in their penalty efforts, each squad calmly converting their first five opportunities. Nashville cracked first, though, as Justin Davis sent his team’s sixth penalty high over the crossbar. Victory then laid at the feet of the substitute Walker, one of the club’s few three-year members. When Nashville keeper Matt Pickens dove right, Walker went right too, slotting in FCC’s sixth penalty kick with ease.
So FC Cincinnati escaped disappointment and a minor bit of humiliation as well, after some members of the team incorrectly celebrated victory following Davis’s miss. They escaped despite an underwhelming performance by Emmanuel Ledesma, the possible USL MVP, whose influence was limited aside from a near-goal in the first half. Despite possessing much less creative talent, Nashville tallied more shots on goal (6-5) than FCC.
Perhaps now, after securing both the franchise’s first playoff victory after two one-and-done exits and (at least partially) alleviating the city of its playoff curse, FC Cincinnati will look more like its domineering self this Saturday at home against New York Red Bulls II in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Orange and Blue felled the Red Bulls twice by 2-1 margins this season, the latter a positive result despite the match being the third tilt in eight days for Koch’s crew.
As for our fair city, to many of the city’s diehard sports mavens, the drought may not truly be over until the Bengals or Reds—or maybe both—advance in the postseason. That’s a fair perspective to have, as is the what-about-us viewpoint tweeted by the Cincinnati Cyclones, the local minor league hockey team that claimed Kelly Cup titles in 2008 and 2010.
I find myself somewhere in the middle. Saturday counts for something, but at the same time The Drought will not truly be over until the city’s two pro sporting institutions replicate that breakthrough. Nonetheless, the victory did ensure Cincinnatians could experience playoff success … at home … in a clutch situation. And that rarity is surely something to be celebrated.