Waiting for a Goal: A Tragicomic Recap in 7 Acts
Remember when Kenny Saief redirected that chip shot from Kekuta Manneh in the 65' at New England? That was March 24, forty-nine days ago, seven weeks since the last time that FC Cincinnati scored a goal during the regular course of play. We were so young and free then, so hopeful.
Just four games into the MLS season the Orange & Blue had seven goals (from seven different players) two wins (one against last season's Western Conference Champs), one draw (against the holders of the MLS Cup), and one pretty convincing loss that at the time seemed a gross aberration (which it maybe was not, in hindsight). Near the top of the table, on top of the world, and possibly a tiny, little bit cocksure.
Then April happened.
"Black April" lasted six long and dreadful weeks from April/March 30 through April/May 4. Seven straight matches without a win, in which the team scored just one goal on a penalty kick in a disappointing home draw against a depleted Kansas City team. More than 500 minutes elapsed between that penalty kick and the next goal, more than 650 minutes between goals from open play. Crossbars deflected Cincinnati's meager opportunities with maddening consistency. There was no build-up, no strings of possession, no consistency in the starting 11, all part of a directionless, absurd drama with no end in sight.
The team's star player was arrested for driving while intoxicated. The team's all-star loanee, heart on his sleeve, looked more and more on the pitch like a man deeply regretting his decision to board a plane from Belgium back at the beginning of March (Ahhh... March. Sigh. But, I digress). The team's promising, young, first-round draft pick was loaned out to the USL and then recalled after three weeks.
The coach publicly questioned the roster after a difficult-to-watch Wednesday scrimmage at Philadelphia that evidently counted. Four days later, after an anemic performance against a San Jose team that looked like they were trying to give the game away, the players started questioning the coach's decisions in public; a dreaded “show of support” akin to dead man walking.
Then, just eleven games into the team's inaugural season, seven days into May at the tail-end of Black April, Jeff Berding fired Alan Koch, and there was little agreement among fans about how to feel about it.
The worst of all of it by far was the long wait.
The Long Wait
The first shutout at the hand of the Philadelphia Union came in the midst of a torrential downpour, and these things are going to happen. It was a dark and stormy night, etc. Next came the KC draw, a self-inflicted wound as a 16-year-old skipped past a bewildered pile-up at the top of our box consisting our star defender and goalkeeper for a tap in to a wide open net. Our defense held the goliath LAFC offense to just one goal all the way up until the 90-something-just-throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-em minute. The shutout was barely a blip on the radar. That defense, though!
The Friday night loss to Real Salt Lake was embarrassing. Chance after chance went for naught. RSL looked like they were playing on a rigged foosball table in a dive bar on the wrong side of town. Palpable feelings dread crept into the Bailey. The 1-0 loss to Red Bulls in New Jersey is when the slump hit home. Three straight without a goal. The chances being created (and squandered) didn’t seem to be coming from any kind of real plan.
This is not our beautiful soccer team. How did we get here?
Everything Falls Apart
There was an existential debate about the very nature of what it means to be a “real fan.” Cries for relegation back to USL were hotly debated. (Never goin’ back to Richmond). Maybe the process is a hoax. Maybe casual fans were going to leave the sinking ship, empty Nippert. Maybe the pundits were right. Maybe the team will never score another goal ever again as long as we live, and fans will be humiliated. While this was uncharted territory for FC Cincinnati, it was all too ominously familiar for Cincinnati sports fans.
They (all of them, from all over) were saying that it wasn’t just that FCC was losing, it’s that they looked lost doing it. It wasn’t just that there were no goals, but there was nothing to offer any hope that a goal was in the making. Other teams were scoring goals, sometimes even multiple goals in one match, which was unseemly and gluttonous. There was lots of rain, a handful of chances, but no goals. All joy was quickly waning.
Truth and Consequences
When FCC left that Wednesday night face-palmer in Philadelphia with another goose egg, the locker room struggles went live. The previously unflappable and confident coach more than insinuated in his post-match interview with the media that the players he had were not enough.
When the team’s DP returned fire at the coach after an abysmal offensive (in both senses of the word) performance in San Jose the following weekend, all reason had evaporated. Fans wondered if Koch might be coaching for his job on FCC’s return home the following weekend against the third place Montreal Impact. It seemed pretty early for something like that, but what else could be done. Could a miracle happen at home? It didn’t get that far.
Alan Koch was relieved of his duties and Yoann Damet was promoted to interim head coach the following Tuesday. Current and ex-players seemed unilaterally confident in the ability of 29-year-old Damet to lead the struggling side out of the darkness. He has ideas, they said, a clear vision for how he wants to play soccer, they said. The players trusted his tactical acumen. There was some ray of hope.
Mercifully, Black April ended under the bright sunshine of an early afternoon in the second week of May.
Lamah was fouled and Ulloa tapped the ensuing free kick back to Hoyte. (Hoyte is a Center Back now, by the way.) Hoyte returned the ball to Ulloa, who tapped it back again this time to Waston, back to Ulloa. Ulloa got tied up with a pressing defender, and fought the ball back to Waston, who crossed it to Hoyte. Then, the ball went pinballing from Hoyte to DePlagne to Ulloa again. There has never been so much passing in all the history of soccer, I think! Ulloa to Lamah to Bertone to Amaya. Amaya, who was the best player on the pitch for all 60 minutes he was in, made an incomprehensibly quick, 180 turn to feed the ball to Garza sprinting through the midfield. Garza carried the ball into the final third, dropped it off to Cruz. Back to Amaya. Back to Ulloa, who faked right, then sent it back to Amaya. Amaya to Mattocks to Garza back to Mattocks. Mattocks outran three defenders to the endline and crossed the ball to Cruz at the top of 6, who chipped it over the keeper. It skipped off the crossbar.
It was maybe half a second, just long enough in terms of rapid eye movements and post-traumatic, synaptic firings to induce a quarter second of panic in the 26,000 plus in attendance, but the ball bounced in behind the goal line. The word “GOAL!” flashed on the jumbotron. There were no flags.
It was one of those goals fans will never forget. Bertone's goal at Seattle. Waston's goal in the home opener. Cruz's shot to end Black April.
It wasn't just the goal, though. It was the way it happened: patient, calculated involving the whole team. If you're counting at home, ten different FC Cincinnati players touched the ball in the build up to that goal. All ten position players sustained possession for over 54 seconds, starting with a free kick meant to start a build up instead of take a long shot on a 50/50 set piece.
The long wait was over. Black April was over. The sun shined. We all got a little sunburned, and it was worth it.
Also, FC Cincinnati won, which was nice, too.
FC Cincinnati Starting Lineup (4-3-3):
Spencer Richey (G), Kendall Waston (D), Justin Hoyte (D), Greg Garza (D), Mathieu Deplagne (D), Victor Ulloa (M), Leonardo Bertone (M), Frankie Amaya (M), Allan Cruz (M), Roland Lamah (M), Darren Mattocks (F) Substitutes: Fatai Alashe 59′, Emmanuel Ledesma 74′, Kekuta Manneh 81′
Montreal Impact Starting Lineup (5-3-2):
Evan Bush (G), Daniel Lovitz (D), Jukka Raitala (D), Zakaria Diallo (D), Rudy Camacho (D), Zachary Brault-Guillard (D), Shamit Shome (M), Samuel Piette (M), Michael Azira (M), Omar Browne (F), Maximiliano Urruti (F) Substitutes: Orji Okwonkwo 62′, Bacary Sagna 71′, Anthony Jackson-Hamel 75′
FC Cincinnati Goals:
Alan Cruz 7’
Fatai Alashe 62’
Montreal Impact Goals:
Orji Okwonkwo 75’ (And, good for him. Really. Scoring goals is hard.)