FC Cincinnati has had a Cinderella run for the ages, bringing the USL club to the precipice of a U.S. Open Cup final. To get there, though, they’ll have to go through a perennial MLS heavy-hitter that’s still looking for the club’s first ever tournament crown.
On Tuesday, FC Cincinnati goes head-to-head with their latest challenge as they host the New York Red Bulls in the second U.S. Open Cup semifinal. The winner advances to take on Sporting KC, who toppled the San Jose Earthquakes on penalty kicks to earn hosting rights for the competition’s final match.
FC Cincinnati is just two-years into existence and punching well above the team’s weight class throughout a magical run through the USOC. Their opponents, the New York Red Bulls, have been around quite awhile longer, but experience the same longing for tournament successes experienced by the USL club. Through the club’s 23-history, the Red Bulls have yet to win a tournament trophy and have only had two shots at winning in a tournament finale.
That fact only adds to Tuesday’s clash, one which sees the MLS club travel to a sold-out Nippert Stadium.
“It’s a big opportunity for both clubs,” said Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch. “For Cincinnati, being a young team and getting this far, it’s a big moment. We know there will be a lot of energy in the stadium. For us, playing for trophies is important. Our club, unfortunately, has none. It’s our 22nd season and this is an opportunity to get ourselves in a final. We know it will be a tough game with a tough crowd, but we’re really excited and we’re ready to go.”
“It would be big for the club,” added Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan. “Since 2003, they made it to that one final and didn’t win that one either. We just want to give ourselves the best chance to lift the first U.S. Open Cup in this club’s history. We know how much it would mean to the organization, not just to the guys giving it their all but to the fans as well. It’s important.”
The Red Bulls’ run to the semifinal is the fifth in club history, and they’ve fallen on three of those previous occasions. This year’s road to the semifinal has seen the club take down a trio of local rivals, advancing past New York City FC, the Philadelphia Union and the New England Revolution to earn their trip to Cincy.
They’ll be short-handed, though. Daniel Royer, who stepped up to lead the club to a strong summer run, will be out with a knee injury, although a majority of the club’s other stars are expected to feature.
FC Cincy is short-handed as well due to the loss of Djiby Fall, who will be suspended for Tuesday’s match due to yellow card accumulation. Fall is tied for the tournament lead with four goals, as FC Cincy advanced past AFC Cleveland, Louisville City FC, the Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire and Miami FC throughout the team’s extended run.
“We’ve embraced that the entire season, the next man-up,” star goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt told SBI. “This isn’t the first time we’ve lost Djiby and guys have stepped up and we’ve won games. Danni Konig has been playing great for us. Kyle (Greig) we just got from Vancouver and he had a great game (against Orlando City B) so he’s flying right now. We have tremendous depth on the team and the forward spot is definitely not a spot where we’re hurting.
“Obviously we’re going to miss Djiby. We’re not going to miss 15 goals, but I think the team is going to embrace coming together and battling.”
With a win, Cincy would become just the fourth lower-division side to reach the tournament final since MLS kicked off in 1996 and the first since the Charleston Battery made it to the finale in 2008. Since the start of 1996, just one non-MLS team, the 1999 Rochester Rhinos, have won the cup competition.
Both sides are aware of the stakes and both have their own reasons to be eager to win but both sides will have the same motivation at the end of the day: a chance at moving one step closer to a major trophy.
“We have to take into account their mentality coming into this game,” Kljestan said. “It’s probably the biggest game of their season so far. They have a chance to do something very special that hasn’t been done in a few years with a lower division team making it this far. It’s going to be a big challenge. We have to match their mentality and match their effort to get a result.”
“(The team’s mentality) is to win. We have to do everything we can to put the game our terms. We have to play fast and at a pace they hopefully can’t keep up with for 90 minutes.”