FC Cincinnati is currently 8-0-4 in their last 12 matches. This is the best stretch of success the MLS expansion club played in its short, three-year history. But the season is not over.
This Saturday, Cincinnati welcomes the Charleston Battery for the finale of a seven game home stand (including our International Friendly). And although FC Cincinnati sits atop the USL leaderboard with a total of 48 points, the upcoming game against the Battery is must win for the Orange & Blue. Here’s why.
In the grand scheme of things, soccer puts a lot of attention on the Supporter’s Shield. This award is achieved by possessing the best record in all of the league at the end of the regular season. Many European leagues use this method to decide who that year’s overall Champion is. But in the United States, we have playoffs. First rule of playoffs: the regular season doesn’t matter. If you can’t win the title, no one cares if you went undefeated. Just ask the 2007 New England Patriots.
That being said, FCC’s incredible point total is nothing to ignore. It’s an impressive feat. But it’s also not the ultimate objective. The same goes for every other team. If you can win the Championship it doesn’t matter if you start the playoffs as the 1st seed or the 8th. Just last year, the Western Conference Real Monarchs won the Supporter’s Shield after earning 67 points on the season. Their 20 wins a season best. They were a force to be reckoned with. And they were knocked out of the playoffs by Sacramento Republic FC on PKs in the 1st Round. The regular season doesn’t matter.
It probably goes without saying, but playoffs have been historically disappointing for Cincinnati sports in particular – the city hasn’t won a major league playoff game/series in over two decades. FC Cincinnati (as of yet) has failed to change this culture, exiting in Round 1 in both their 2016 and 2017 campaigns.
With the focus on creating the best chance to succeed come October in mind, the regular season can still provide clues as to which teams will become the greatest challenges. Given that FC Cincinnati is already on top of the Eastern Conference mountain, who are their biggest threats? The current standings are quite telling…
A reasonable assumption is that teams currently ranked 5-13 are fighting for the last four spots in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Charleston, and Louisville have solidified themselves as bonafide contenders.
Reflecting directly on FC Cincinnati’s season, it has been these same three teams proving to be the real threats for the end of the year. As the record stands, FCC is a combined 1-2-1 against the three. They won their first match of the year against Charleston in spite of being outplayed. The early goal by Blake Smith allowed for FCC to sit back and play defensively, as Head Coach Alan Koch prefers, similar to many of the Open Cup games in 2017. Evan Newton also had the save of the month to stop the Battery from pulling back even for a draw. We then went on to lose (twice) at home to Louisville. And lastly, we managed to steal a point from Pittsburgh at home after going down a goal, twice.
These are not reassuring results.
We can beat low level teams all day long. At this point, that is the expectation. But when it comes to meaningful games, I’m simply not certain FC Cincinnati has the “we are better than you” mindset. Yet.
Beginning Saturday, FC Cincinnati will have four more opportunities to play the best three teams in the East to solidify themselves as the team to beat. While I mentioned before the regular season is meaningless in terms of success (so long as you make the playoffs), it is still a terrific chance for teams to state their cases and induce fear into the rest of the league. Now is that chance.
There is a difference between teams that win, and teams that avoid losing. To be the best you have to beat the best. When everything is on the line, there’s only one type of team that will rise to the occasion. FC Cincinnati still needs to prove they are that team. They must not only win Saturday, they must make a statement. Hopefully, it’s a good one.