In the past three years, FC Cincinnati has quickly ascended into the spotlight on the American soccer scene.
Soccer fans have come out in droves from Southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky — flocking in record numbers to Nippert Stadium to support the third-year USL franchise, FC Cincinnati.
In advance of its first match ever against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in May 2016, the club heavily promoted the game among its fan base hungry to beat a Pittsburgh team (as it was only months after the Steelers defeated long-time rival Bengals in the NFL playoffs).
In fact, team owner Carl Linder III was so eager for that game and to create excitement, he called playing Pittsburgh — “THE rivalry”.
FCC even rolled out with four members of the Cincinnati Bengals, including Adam “Pacman” Jones and Vontez Burfict, to serve as honorary captains.
Still, even with the hype in Cincinnati and more than 22,000 fans attending that first ever match between the two sides, it still felt manufactured.
Of course was concocted — after all both sides were new to each other.
And both franchises were heading in different directions at that time.
That season the Hounds went through a coaching change and were among the worst teams in the USL, while FCC became a playoff team. Each of the three matches between the teams were tightly contested, it was FCC that were on the front foot each time.
The Orange and Blue kept the Hounds from scoring in 270 minutes of action that season — winning twice by 1-0 scorelines plus there was also an uninspiring 0-0 draw.
In 2017, two meetings were closely contested, but once again the Hounds for the most part were not the team dictating terms of play.
Early in the season when FCC’s supporters brought two buses to the Steel City, the Hounds were shut out again.
It was at that game when it became an interesting topic to explore (in the video segment below) — if this was indeed a rivalry in the making.
By early September, the Riverhounds were red hot — winning three in a row when they made their first and only trip of the season to the Queen City in 2017 in what turned out to be a highly entertaining duel between two teams battling in the tightly contested USL’s Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Hounds extended its unbeaten steak to five games, in a hard-fought 1-1 draw pitting teams with contrasting styles and tactics.
Then, it all went downhill from there. The Hounds wouldn’t win another match for the rest of the season, while Cincinnati battled to clinch its second postseason berth in as many years in the USL.
There was no chance for the Hounds to go neck and neck with FCC down the stretch of the season battling for a playoff spot because they simply weren’t good enough. Instead, the Keystone Derby Cup matches against Harrisburg City Islanders (now renamed Penn FC) have aptly served as the most appropriate ‘heated’ foe in the past three or four years.
Any wishes on building a true soccer rivalry between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati would have to be put on the back burner.
That would make sense as there has to be a lot more at stake first.
And now — that back burner is heating up.
Not only have the teams already played a pretty intense, back-and-forth affair once this year at Nippert that ended in a 2-2 draw, but they’ll now meet at least four times this season with the addition of Wednesday’s Open Cup showdown.
Suddenly the two franchises caught up in more than a fabricated competition.
And that my friends may be the start of something special — and a real rivalry.
“We’re not going to be able to sit back for 90 minutes and absorb pressure and crosses against this team. We’re going to have to come out and look to take the game to them,” Lilley said prior to this year’s first match. “When you’re a top team, you have to be able to win in all types of environments.”
After the teams played to a 2-2 duel in April, we were left with wanting more.
“That was an exciting soccer game,” Alan Koch, FC Cincinnati head coach said in his post-game interview. “It was a bit of a tactical chess match. They adjusted. We adjusted. They adjusted. We adjusted. I am very proud of our group in how we responded.”
To Lilley’s credit, he had his team ready to take it to FC Cincinnati the first time around — and I am sure the Hounds will take the same approach on Wednesday.
The stakes are high for USL teams in the Open Cup because of the notoriety and prestige that comes with advancing and playing against MLS opponents in the longest running soccer tournament in North America.
Last year, already sporting aspirations and motivations to become a Major League Soccer franchise — FC Cincinnati pushed its way through for an impressive run in the Cup. The upstart FCC made it all the way to the semifinals of the tournament, losing to the NY Red Bulls after beating two other MLS sides (Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire – both at home) and FC Miami of the NASL in the quarterfinals. Along the way, they became the darlings on the National soccer stage. Two of its Cup games were featured on ESPN networks — and each of the home games provided a rollicking atmosphere at Nippert.
The Hounds, on the other hand, flopped the past two years in the Open Cup, losing to amateur sides Lansdowne Bhoys and Chicago United FC.
These losses were huge disappointments for the Hounds who are fighting for relevancy in a market where the average sports fans are already paying attention to three well-established pro sports franchises.
While the Hounds have a smaller group of core fans, it still may be fair to say that they’re still the more established franchise — having been around since 1999. Pittsburgh currently is among four remaining franchises that go back to the early days of the A-League and USL’s origins. There has been some animosity and resentment among the die-hard Pittsburgh soccer fans with the emergence of Cincinnati’s relatively new fan base. And from Cincinnati’s fan perspective — there’s always the desire to beat any team from Pittsburgh.
The Hounds have made Open Cup runs and have played MLS teams in his history.
Of course, the most recent and memorable was three years ago, when Pittsburgh did get a taste of a magical Open Cup experience in Pittsburgh when the Hounds faced off against MLS’ DC United, losing 3-1 in a game that went to extra time. The game was played before an overflow crowd at Highmark Stadium — providing Pittsburgh, in a match where the fans were into it from the first touch to the final whistle.
It was a brief moment of soccer euphoria in Pittsburgh.
Things have changed this season. With the addition of Lilley, who has won at every stop he’s been on the lower (usually second division) level of the US pro soccer pyramid, the Hounds have quickly become a serious contender — and remain unbeaten in league play.
Cincy, which made a number of veteran signings in the off season, have started off strong again this year and are currently in first place in the USL standings.
If the match in April between the two sides would indicate, both Lilley and FCC’s Koch engaged in a battle of tactics that saw each side generate scoring chances in an open-ended affair at Nippert. The Hounds have been putting up record-breaking defensive numbers, but in road games against Cincy and also at Tampa Bay this past weekend have shown they can open things up and play an up and down style.
With Lilley at the helm, and expectations suddenly greater than ever, the Hounds are banking on making Open Cup runs every year.
“When you’re a top team, you have to be able to win in all types of environments,” Lilley said. “We can’t have mediocre performances against teams like Cincinnati.”
With both teams at the top of the USL’s Eastern Conference standings (Cincy’s in first place at the moment, but the Hounds are undefeated and they are the top two teams in goal differential in the league), the added incentive of winning a game that will pit them against a MLS side, and battle to be at the top of the conference — this year these teams will be playing what should be some intense games. And they’ll also be looking at where each are in the standings.
“We all aspire to play at the highest level possible, and a lot of guys on our team have played in MLS or want to get to MLS, so it’s a good chance to see how you stack up against them,” midfielder Noah Franke said. “It would be really cool to show them, just because we’re USL, doesn’t mean we can’t hang with them.”
But first, on Wednesday the Open Cup awaits.
And maybe, finally, we’ll have the beginnings of a real rivalry.
A CLOSER LOOK: RIVERHOUNDS SC vs FC CINCINNATI
All-time series: Cincy leads 3-0-3
(links to John Krysinsky/Pgh Soccer Now & Pgh Soccer Report coverage of each game below)
- May 14 – Cincinnati 1, Pittsburgh 0 (Nippert Stadium)
- September 15 – Pittsburgh 0, Cincinnati 0 (Highmark Stadium) Hounds battle FCC to hard-fought scoreless draw
- September 24 – Cincinnati 1, Pittsburgh 0 (Highmark Stadium) – Microcosm of 2016 season as Hounds drop finale 1-0 to FCC
- April 2 – Cincinnati 1, Pittsburgh 0 (Highmark Stadium) – FCC Shuts out shorthanded Hounds
- September 4 – Pittsburgh 1, Cincinnati 1 (Nippert Stadium) – Hounds start off fast, hang on for 1-1 draw at Cincy
- April 21 – Pittsburgh 2, Cincinnati 2 (Nippert Stadium) – Exciting chess match at Nippert ends in draw
OTHER OPEN CUP / RIVERHOUNDS NOTES
Third Round Success
In club history, Pittsburgh holds a 3-1 record in the third round of the Open Cup. The last time the Hounds played a third round match came in 2015, when they defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 1-0, to advance to play D.C. United in a fourth round showdown.
Riverhounds SC has posted a 5-2 record at Highmark Stadium in Open Cup matches, and will look to continue this success against FC Cincinnati on Wednesday. Despite this .714 winning percentage, the Hounds have dropped their last two matches at their home venue.
When scoring at least two goals in Open Cup play, Pittsburgh has logged a 9-1 all-time record. The team’s only loss when scoring at least two goals came during a 2001 sudden-death overtime 3-2 defeat to the Chicago Fire (MLS).