In 2016, when FC Cincinnati came on the scene in the USL Championship, they immediately had big aspirations.
After just three seasons, with unprecedented and impressive attendance numbers for a second-division soccer franchise, Western Ohio’s pro soccer team would be moving up to Major League Soccer.
Today (1:30 p.m. kickoff from Cincinnati, OH) the Pittsburgh Riverhounds will see them again. The clubs will face each other in a preseason friendly for both sides that will merely be a chance for both clubs to get a closer look at players fighting for playing time and getting ready for their respective seasons.
For a very brief time, FC Cincinnati provided a pretty good foil for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC.
After all, everything about what they did in building its franchise contrasted with how the Riverhounds evolved.
Cincinnati’s ownership group, led by Carl Linder, CEO of American Financial Group, had ambitious plans and poured plenty of capital into driving interest and fans to support the team. They invested heavily in local media buys and advertising. They were willing to offer higher-end salaries for free agents to build a club that would be successful at the USL Championship level but were always looking to become a Major League Soccer franchise. Crowds of more than 20,000 would flock to Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati to games. Eventually, with a plan in place to build a new, soccer-specific facility, they would secure a spot in Major League Soccer for the 2019 season.
Pittsburgh is a similar sized city as Cincinnati, but its tales of its pro soccer clubs is much different. Operating without the same ambitions and deep pockets, the Hounds have managed to survive and persevere in the second and third division pro scene for more than 20 years.
When the teams first met on the field in 2016, the Hounds were falling apart after a disastrous start to the season which led to the firing of USL Hall of Fame coach Mark Steffens, being replaced by Dave Brandt. They could not earn a victory in three matches that season against the upstarts from Cincinnati, losing twice, but earning a hard-fought scoreless draw near the end of the season at Highmark Stadium, when future Manchester City and USMNT keeper Zach Steffen made some great saves to preserve a clean sheet.
— Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (@RiverhoundsSC) September 15, 2016
In 2017, Brandt’s first (and only) full campaign as Hounds head coach, Pittsburgh would also face FCC three times.
After the first match in Pittsburgh that season, a 1-0 FCC win, we crafted this YouTube video titled, “A Soccer Rivalry in the Works”.
These games were much more competitive in 2017, including a memorable early September showdown at Nippert before more than 22,000 fans, which the Hounds blew a few chances to steal a win, but still played admirably in battling to a 1-1 draw. At this time, the Hounds had some momentum building, had a .500 record and were inside the playoff line.
It turns out that draw was the beginning of the end of the short-lived Dave Brandt era in Piittsburgh, as the Hounds would not win a match for the rest of the season, flaming out and coming up short in its bid to return to the playoffs and find a potential rematch vs FCC that season.
After Bob Lilley was hired at the Hounds head coach in 2018, Pittsburgh became a playoff-caliber team immediately, but one team that they couldn’t overtake was FC Cincinnati, who started beefing up its roster with MLS level talent. FCC sprinted way ahead of the rest of the USL Eastern Conference field that season to a record-breaking campaign.
The Hounds gave them some tough games that season though.
In April, in an open-ended match at times, the teams played to an exciting 2-2 draw at Nippert, as the Hounds surrendered the first goals of that season after an impressive shutout streak that stretched to its first five games.
“That was an exciting soccer game,” Alan Koch, FC Cincinnati head coach said in his post-game interview at that time “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.”
The Hounds were unbeaten through the first month of that season.
FCC did come to Highmark that May for an Open Cup match, which showed they were the deeper club. With the mid-week match forcing both clubs to use numerous non-starters, FCC surged past Pittsburgh for an impressive 3-1 win in Pittsburgh to advance in the tournament.
It really looked like the Hounds and FCC would battle to the wire and many thought into the postseason that year.
The next time they met, was again an early Labor Day weekend encounter at Nippert before more than 25,000 fans. This time, the Hounds once again took it to FCC, and took the lead. Heading into the final 10 minutes, they were holding onto a 1-0 lead before the bottom fell out.
FCC scored twice in the final stretch of the match to over take the Hounds, 2-1, to keep its impressive winning streak alive.
The frustration after that match from the Hounds, and in this case, in this interview with Joe Greenspan was evident. If the Hounds had any chance of catching FCC, getting a win would have helped that night.
“I think what this week (2-2 tie at Indy Eleven and 2-1 loss at FCC) showed was that we can play with anyone, home or away,” Lilley added. “We’re not going to hang our heads on this one. We gave a good account of ourselves. It certainly isn’t a moral victory, but it’s nothing to concern ourselves with other than we play them once more in the regular season. There’s a good chance we may meet them somewhere down the road in the playoffs, and we don’t need to be afraid to play them.”
The teams would meet one more time, at the end of the season, back in Pittsburgh in an anticlimactic scoreless draw, as the match didn’t have any implications, as FCC had already secured the top spot in the USL’s Eastern Conference and the Hounds were slotted in the third spot.
There would be no rematch in the playoffs.
Maybe it was appropriate that they would not meet in that postseason and the clubs would end up going their separate ways.
Ultimately, it was a rivalry that never had a chance from the start.