FC Cincinnati fans ‘hopeful’ for MLS playoff berth

CINCINNATI — It’s a make-or-break weekend for FC Cincinnati, who are one game away from the first MLS Cup Playoff berth in club history.

What You Need To Know

  • With a win or a draw against D.C. United on Sunday, FC Cincinnati will secure its first playoff trip since joining MLS
  • If FCC loses, they can still make the playoffs if Orlando City SC and Columbus Crew don’t draw
  • Fans of the Orange and Blue are ‘optimistic’ but ‘cautious’ based on the track record of Cincinnati teams in the postseason
  • The official party is at Rhinegeist, but there are 14 ‘pub partners’ broadcasting the game in Washington, D.C.

The Orange and Blue are on the road to take on bottom-dwelling D.C. United at Audi Field on Sunday, the last day of the regular season. The club needs only to avoid a loss to clinch its first-ever trip to the postseason since joining the MLS in 2019.

Sara Rozow (L) poses for a selfie with a friend in the stands at an FC Cincinnati match. (Photo courtesy of Sara Rozow)

Even with a loss, FC Cincinnati could still back their way into the playoffs as long as interstate rival Columbus Crew and Orlando City SC don’t play to a draw on Decision Day.

FCC fans are hoping their squad can take care of business early to put those doubts to rest. The match in Washington, D.C. kicks off at 2:30 p.m.

“I’m so excited and really hoping to close out the regular season with a win,” said Sara Rozow, of St. Bernard. “I was really hoping for a home match just to be around the excitement and energy one more time this season. But honestly, it’d just be so special to see FC Cincinnati in the playoffs.”

Rozow, 36, is a lifelong soccer fan and has attended FC Cincinnati matches since the team debuted as a minor-league franchise in the United Soccer League (USL) in 2016.

While those early days at Nippert Stadium were “loads of fun,” Rozow said the past few seasons in the MLS have been difficult. The club finished last in the Eastern Conference each of its first three seasons in the MLS, earning the “Wooden Spoon” for the worst record in the league each time.

“Struggling didn’t change how I felt about FC Cincinnati, but it helps that they have won more this season than last,” she added. “It’s been amazing to see the difference in the team this season — and I hope they can keep it going.”

From ‘pretender’ to ‘contender’ in a single season

Much of the credit this season can be given to first–year Head Coach Pat Noonan. The former Philadelphia Union assistant has guided FCC to 11 wins and 46 points so far this season.

Zach Blandford is a member of one of several FC Cincinnati support groups. He feels 'optimistic' but 'cautious' heading into Sunday's match. (Photo courtesy of Zach Blandford)

Zach Blandford is a member of one of several FC Cincinnati support groups. He feels ‘optimistic’ but ‘cautious’ heading into Sunday’s match. (Photo courtesy of Zach Blandford)

Mayor Aftab Pureval called the passion and energy FCC has brought to the city for each home match this season “an incredible sight to see.”

“FC Cincinnati has fired up our fans all season long, and we can’t wait to cheer them on as they fight to bring home this playoff berth,” he added. “We’re hungry and ready to show the nation what Cincy is made of.”

FCC had been on a roll heading into last week, earning at least one point in 10 of its last 11 matches. The club could have clinched a playoff spot last week at home, but they came up short, 3-2, against the Chicago Fire.

In doing so, the Orange and Blue opened the playoff door a little wider for both Columbus and Orlando.

“You know, I’m optimistic but also very cautious,” said Zach Blandford, a member of The Pride, one of FCC’s supporter groups. “There’s kind of only one scenario out there where FC Cincinnati doesn’t make the playoffs, but this being a Cincinnati sports team, you don’t want to take anything for granted.”

Blandford, 27, pointed to several somewhat recent Cincinnati sports heartbreaks to justify his tempered optimism:

  • After snapping a 14-year losing streak, the Bengals suffered a franchise-altering injury to then-franchise quarterback Carson Palmer in 2005 during a playoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • A talented Reds team unraveled in 2012 against the San Francisco Giants, extending the franchise’s two-plus decades of postseason futility. 

  • Miami University’s men’s hockey team surrendered a two-goal lead to Boston University with 60 seconds left in the 2009 national championship to force overtime; Miami ended up losing in the extra period.

Perhaps most heartbreaking to Blandford was watching his beloved Cincinnati Bearcats — a No. 2 seed — blowing a 22-point lead with 11 minutes to play in the second round of the men’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament to seventh-seeded Nevada.

Thankfully, he said, despite the FC Cincinnati’s regular-season struggles, the club has actually had its fair share of stunning upsets in its brief history. He noted the “miraculous” run the team made in the 2017 U.S. Open while still in the USL. The team defeated Crew and Fire on its way to a semifinal berth.

“I have faith in this team,” said Blandford, who plans to watch the game at Northern Row Brewery in Over-the-Rhine, one of 14 local “pub partners” broadcasting the game. There’s an official watch party at Rhinegeist Brewery.

“This was the worst team in the league three years in a row and now we’re on the verge of the playoffs,” Blandford added. “FCC has taken a lot of really cool steps forward this year, and with coaching and personnel changes it feels like the beginning of a new era in Cincinnati soccer.”

Hell is Real: Playoff style

While Sunday’s matchup isn’t head-to-head, you’d be hard-pressed to find an FC Cincinnati fan who wouldn’t savor playing a role in keeping Crew out of the playoffs. Rozow and Blandford are two of those fans.

Cincinnati and Columbus are part of the “Hell is Real” Derby, an allusion to a notorious roadside sign on a stretch of Interstate 71 separating the two cites.

The series has been contentious since it began in 2017 with Cincinnati’s win in the U.S. Open Cup. But perhaps the most dramatic matchup happened last year when Crew scored a pair of extremely late goals to pull off a stunning 3-2 comeback at Lower.com Field.

Bill Johnson (L) poses with his son Collin at a Columbus Crew match in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Bill Johnson)

Bill Johnson (L) poses with his son Collin at a Columbus Crew match in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Bill Johnson)

Crew won its home match between FCC earlier this season, while the two sides played to a draw in Cincinnati. Overall, the record stands at 5-4-2 in favor of Columbus.

“I’d be so happy to keep Columbus Crew out of the playoffs,” Rozow said, describing the rivalry as a “brutal” contest between the teams and the fans. “I think everyone in Cincinnati wants to see that happen.”

But that’s not the case for all local soccer fans, at least not Bill Johnson, 58. The Over-the-Rhine resident has been a Columbus Crew fan dating back to the team’s debut during MLS’ inaugural season in 1996.

He and his son, Collin Johnson, have frequently shared season-tickets since then.

“It may sound a little sappy, but Crew just reminds me of him growing up and going to Crew matches together,” Johnson said. “That’s just where my allegiances lie. I’ll be a Crew fan as long as there’s a Crew to cheer for.”

Crew has to take care of its own business, Johnson said. If FC Cincinnati wins and Crew somehow stumbles and misses the playoffs, he’d expect to get an earful from FCC fans. 

“I probably have it coming to me,” Johnson joked. He mentioned he gave FCC fans a hard time two seasons ago when Crew won the title while FC Cincinnati struggled to the worst record in the league.

“I’m also an Ohio State guy, so I get jabbed from all directions for all sorts of reasons if (Crew) doesn’t make the playoffs,” he added. “But you know, if FC (Cincinnati) doesn’t make it, they’ll hear about it, too.”

Despite any potential awkwardness, Johnson loves the playoff picture comes down to Decision Day and the fact Ohio’s two teams are in the running.

“I think it’s great for both cities and great for the league, frankly,” he said. “Who doesn’t love a competitive rivalry?”

Blandford can appreciate a good rivalry as well.

“I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be sweet if we knocked them out of the playoffs,” Blandford said “My first priority, obviously, is winning and making the playoffs, but if by virtue of winning we also knocked out Columbus Crew, that’d be more than cool with me.”