5 things to know about FC Cincinnati’s home opener

FC Cincinnati’s Jimmy McLaughlin and Kenney Walker celebrate McLaughlin’s goal in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Pittsburgh at Nippert Stadium. Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati
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FC Cincinnati’s Jimmy McLaughlin and Kenney Walker celebrate McLaughlin’s goal in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Pittsburgh at Nippert Stadium. Photo courtesy of FC Cincinnati

No one really knew what to expect going into FC Cincinnati’s inaugural home game last year.

An electric crowd of 14,658 surprised many, but it was just the beginning of a special season.

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Now, even bigger crowds are expected in Year 2 and it starts Saturday with the home opener against United Soccer League Eastern Conference newcomer St. Louis FC (2-0-1), as FC Cincinnati (1-2-0) kicks off a three-game stretch at Nippert Stadium.

“We were really surprised with how many people came out,” FC Cincinnati midfielder Kenney Walker recalled of the home opener last year. “We didn’t think we would have as many as we did, so it was exciting coming in and starting a new club and having that atmosphere. The first one was special, but we didn’t know it was going to carry on throughout the whole year and it seems it’s still carrying on from last year.”

Here are five things to know heading into the home opener:

1. Eying a record

FC Cincinnati broke Sacramento’s single-game USL attendance record of 20,231 in the second game at Nippert last year, but the Republic’s mark still stands as the biggest home opener crowd in league history. The Orange and Blue hopes to change that.

FCC topped 15,000 tickets sold for Saturday’s home opener by Monday, including about 11,500 season tickets, and attendance should be helped by a forecast for warm, sunny weather. The club drew a single-game, regular-season record crowd of 24,376 fans in the home finale against Orlando City last year.

Fans cheer on the FC Cincinnati team as they play English Premier League team Crystal Palace in a friendly match Saturday, July 16 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. NICK GRAHAM
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Fans cheer on the FC Cincinnati team as they play English Premier League team Crystal Palace in a friendly match Saturday, July 16 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. NICK GRAHAM

2. Rivalries on and off the pitch

St. Louis and Tampa (3-0-0) – the next opponent in the home slate Wednesday – are among the top teams in the Eastern Conference table through three games, but to add to the rivalries, the clubs also are competing with Cincinnati for a Major League Soccer bid.

MLS has four spots left in its plans to expand to 28 teams, and 12 cities submitted bids by the Jan. 31 deadline. Two expansion clubs will be announced by the end of the year.

St. Louis hit a huge snag last week when voters rejected a proposal that would have secured $60 million in public financing for a 22,000-seat soccer specific stadium, which could end the city’s MLS bid. FC Cincinnati has yet to announce plans for a long-term facility beyond the three-year lease at Nippert but seems to be steering in that direction.

“At the end of the day, we want to win the competition,” FCC president Jeff Berding said. “All the cities that are vying are all trying to figure out can they do a soccer specific stadium. That will be a criteria by which the bids are evaluated. We believe Cincinnati is a Major League community. We want to be bringing MLS to Cincinnati, and we’re going to do our best to make it work.”

3. New pitch at Nippert

This offseason FC Cincinnati poured $2 million into a project to expand the pitch at Nippert Stadium by five feet in length and width to meet FIFA and MLS regulations.

»RELATED: Lack of stadium plan may not hurt FC Cincinnati’s MLS chances

The club hopes the larger field leads to more goals, as FCC now has more room to work the ball on the flanks, spread out defenses that try to pack the box and make the most of their possession-based attack.

“I think it will help our style of play, our attacking style of possession-based soccer we like to play, so I think it’s going to be a big advantage for us going forward into the season,” midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin said.

FC Cincinnati played a English Premier League's Crystal Palace FC in a friendly match Saturday, July 16 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. Crystal Palace won 2-0. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
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FC Cincinnati played a English Premier League's Crystal Palace FC in a friendly match Saturday, July 16 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. Crystal Palace won 2-0. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

4. Scoring potential

Veteran newcomer Djiby Fall seems to be a fine replacement for USL Golden Boot winner and MVP Sean Okoli, who is now with MLS side New York City FC. Fall has scored both of FCC’s two goals this season and had five during the preseason and two more in a friendly with the University of Dayton on Wednesday.

FCC still has a ways to go in getting its offense moving to the level it had hoped. Berding said this offseason he would like to see the team score 62 goals, which is one more than USL champion New York Red Bulls II did last year and 21 more than FCC had.

5. Shoring up the defense

FC Cincinnati is struggling on the defensive end and was hoping the recent signing of former English Premier League player Justin Hoyte would help but 10 minutes into his first start Sunday, he was forced to the sidelines with an injury.

Center back Austin Berry already has been forced to sit twice since the start of the preseason because of an injury and then a concussion last week, and a defense that brought back all of its starters from last year just hasn’t clicked yet. Coach Alan Koch said the team especially needs to be better on that side of the ball as FCC continues to adjust to his coaching and system of play.