More than a decade ago, Matt Bahner was leading the attack for the Lakota West High School soccer team and dreaming of playing professionally.
He never imagined it would happen in his hometown.
In his fifth professional season, Bahner has made his way back home as a starting right back for FC Cincinnati.
“I never dreamed there would be an opportunity like this in my hometown,” Bahner said. “I knew growing up in the soccer environment in Cincinnati that there was a great soccer following, so it was maybe a little unfortunate there wasn’t (a team) when I was going through, but … now being a part of it, you can totally see it’s 100 percent a viable place for a soccer team. The city has really embraced the team, and I’m really honored to be a part of it now.”
Bahner, who played collegiately at the University of Cincinnati, made his home debut for FCC last Saturday in front of a crowd of 23,144 fans at Nippert Stadium and played arguably his best game to date. His United Soccer League “Team of the Week” performance included an assist, five interceptions and helping the defense record a shutout as FCC beat first-place St. Louis FC, 4-0.
The 27-year-old helped FCC (2-2-1) to a tie against Tampa Bay on Wednesday and looks to continue a successful first home stretch against the top three teams in the USL Eastern Conference on Saturday when the club hosts Louisville City (3-0-1).
“It’s been unbelievable,” Bahner said, also noting how much he enjoys the chance to play in front of family and friends. “I can’t even put it into words.”
Bahner began his pro career in the USL with Harrisburg City in 2013 and 2014 after four years playing for UC as an outside midfielder. He moved on to the North American Soccer League’s Jacksonville Armada in 2015 and appeared in 46 games with three goals in two seasons, but his contract expired at the end of last season and it was time to go elsewhere.
FC Cincinnati immediately came to mind.
“The success of FC Cincinnati last year, being a hometown kid, certainly it was in the back of my mind,” Bahner said. “I never expected that I would still be back here. I never thought it might happen, but I started talking with the coaching staff and things progressed and it got to the point where it felt like a dream come true and an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Despite joining a defense that returned all four starters from last year, Bahner worked his way into the starting lineup to open the season and has remained, but he even surpassed expectations in the home opener last weekend.
Bahner was the catalyst to getting things going offensively, intercepting a pass and turning a give-and-go with Kenney Walker down the right flank before sending a perfect cross to Djiby Fall for the first goal in the 34th minute.
“It’s funny because we were having a chat with our coaching staff the day before the game, and we said his service is good on crosses but it needs to be better,” Koch said. “It’s hard to say that now after he delivered a ball like that, but I think he can work on his consistency of his delivery.
“His fitness is very, very good. His mentality in terms of reading situations is very good. I think defensively, like all players, he can improve in that a little bit with individual 1 v 1 defending, but so far we are very pleased with his performance.”
His ability to work into the attack is no surprise to anyone who saw him play at Lakota West. His senior season in 2007, Bahner led the Greater Miami Conference with 16 goals and 14 assists to earn Co-Player of the Year honors, and his four-assist game that year still stands as a single-game record for the Firebirds.
“Growing up I was a forward going through club and high school, and then in college I was an outside mid, so I have an attacking mindset,” Bahner said. “That’s something I grew up with, but when I was in college as I was looking to a professional career, (UC coach) Hylton (Dayes) told me he thought my best position professionally might be outside back so I made the switch.
“As an outside back, you kind of go both ways. Certainly, your first job is to not give up goals and defend, but secondarily, especially now in this day in age, is to get forward and get in the attack. I certainly love to get up the field. I love to work, and I love to get on the score sheet and help the team as best I can, and hopefully I can keep doing that here for FC Cincinnati.”