In our ongoing to attempt to keep you abreast of everything Hungarian in the world of football I ran across an anomaly – a delightful oasis of passion and energetic enthusiasm for the beautiful game on the banks of the Ohio River.
It was a perfect confluence of interest and proximity that brought me to Cincinnati, Ohio for a US Open Cup match between MLS’s Chicago Fire and second-tier side FC Cincinnati. The lure of watching former Videoton pair Nemanja Nikolić and Arturo Álvarez on the same pitch again was intriguing so I loaded up the car and traveled the 7 and a half short hours to the Queen City.
I was surprised that Niko would be making the trip. MLS’s leading scorer didn’t travel with the club to St. Louis in the previous round of the Cup, and with league matches on either side of a game against another USL side it seemed unlikely that the Hungarian international would grace the pitch in what was likely to be another rubber stamp on their way to the quarter finals. However, with Ghanian winger David Accam and influential US midfielder Dax McCarty both on international duty, Chicago was forced to use their depth to fill in the holes and they came to Cincinnati with the strength of some very recognizable names.
Nikolić, who has been “spared” international duty recently by Bernd Storck, had tweeted “Cincinnati here we come” from the tarmac at O’Hare International airport in Chicago. Bastian Schweinsteiger also got into the mood with a tweet picturing himself, arms wide, in front of the Cincinnati skyline across the river.
This wasn’t going to be a walkover and the match’s mood promised to be intense. FC Cincinnati are a club in just their second season of existence but are averaging over 18,000 fans per match at Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. They attracted a phenomenal 35,061 fans for a friendly match against Crystal Palace last summer, and their previous US Open Cup match against in-State rivals Columbus Crew drew 30,160. Those are insane numbers for a team with no real history or pedigree.
What they do have is a strong German heritage which, no doubt, was a large part of the embryonic stages of this movement. Supporter groups such as Die Innenstadt, who represent the “inner city” neighborhoods of Cincinnati, have their base of operations at Mecklenburg Gardens. This 150 year-old Bier Garten with thick German roots in Corryville is where hundreds of supporters begin a march to Nippert Stadium on game days.
I had to check it out.
I drove in to what appeared to be a run down neighborhood and parked on the street across from the pub about 5 hours before game time to grab a bite to eat and take a look around. It was pretty quiet when I got there but the
place was busily preparing for a big night. The block-long outdoor garden with its canopy of sunlit, leafy vines was set and ready for the party. It didn’t take long before people started filtering in. Local news crews were setting up to talk to supporters and by 6pm the singing had begun and each round of songs carried across the local streets as the place began to fill to standing room only. I joined in with some of the singing and talked to a few fans before I ducked out and made my way to the stadium.
No Djiby, no problem
I got to Nippert around 6:30 and made my way to the press box, five stories above the 3G pitch. The view was exhilarating but the soundproof windows were enough of a deterrent for me so I made my way back down to pitch level to get a feel for the venue. Walking along the far touchline I could already see the flecks of orange and blue starting to dot the seats as I headed toward the North end – The Bailey – the place of thunderous singing, blue and orange smoke bombs, flags and tifos. I was too early, just a few scattered fans had taken their places there.
I went inside the post-match press room underneath the north stand for a water and saw FCC’s Senegalese striker Djiby Fall in white dress shirt mixing a cup of cocoa.
“Pre match cuppa?” I asked.
“Not in for this one?” I continued.
“Nah, got something with my ankle,” he began.
Djiby was the team’s leading scorer and the hero who scored the goal against Columbus in the last round that saw them through to this game. This wasn’t good news for Cincinnati and it felt as if it might be an indication of where this game was heading.
Either way, I was still looking forward to a good game and relished the chance of seeing Niko, Basti, and Arturo lining up for the Fire.
After a short conversation with Djiby about his season and his chances of playing by the weekend, I walked back out of the press room to an explosion of color and sound. The Bailey was filling in and the Chicago supporters were in place with just a causeway gap separating the two groups. Both were in full voice and the overwhelmed Chicago fans punctuated some of their songs with universally recognizable hand signals.
Ah, football. What else brings the diametrically opposed together in such peaceful exchanges of pleasantry?
The Chicago squad began filing past me in their red kit and the first player I saw was Arturo, celebrating his 32nd birthday on the day and looking focused as he strode past. Nikolić and Schweinsteiger brought up the rear and, as the line was held up for a couple of minutes, there they waited anxiously to get onto the pitch.
Two stars for club and their respective countries were ready to do battle not only against their opponents on the field, but the 32,000 in the stands as well. Yes, you heard it right the first time. Over 32,000 thunderous supporters in what felt like a cup final rather than a run-of-the-mill, obligatory midweek run out.
The Fire’s talent showed early on as they bossed the play, hemming Cincinnati into their own end. Álvarez fed a slick ball in for Schweinsteiger on 16 minutes that just missed the German’s outstretched leg inside the six yard box. It was the best chance of the half for the visitors and they continued to pour on the pressure.
Cincinnati spurned a gilt-edged opportunity when Danni König took advantage of a defender’s miscue and burst in from the left only to have his shot saved by Chicago keeper Matt Lampson.
Álvarez had a tremendous, left-footed effort flash just wide of Cincinnati ‘keeper Mitch Hildebrandt’s left hand post just before half time.
It was Álvarez again in the second half who drifted from the right into a dangerous position inside the area. The ball was nicked away and fell to Nikolić after a collision between Hildebrandt and Chicago forward Luis Solignac, but the former Videoton and Legia man couldn’t finish from close range.
Shortly after it was Álvarez again surging down the right and crossing for Solignac who teed up a wide-open Niko but his low drive was denied by Hildebrandt.
Nikolić broke through again on 67 minutes but hit a tame drive into the waiting arms of the keeper from the edge of the area. Perhaps his legs were feeling the effects of the short rest, but his accuracy (or lack thereof) wouldn’t have tipped off the casual observer that he was MLS’s leading scorer.
Spurred on by the crowd, the hosts were the better side in the final 10 minutes of regulation as they exploited the vast spaces behind the pushed-up Chicago defense but were unable to fashion a winner.
Álvarez and Nikolić continued to link up in overtime and the former played a nice ball in for the latter in the 105th minute but Niko was denied once again by the confident Hildebrandt.
The best part of the night was the tension and the crowd during the penalty shootout. After 120 minutes of excitement, drama, and a late disallowed goal for Cincinnati, the fans were hoping for some retribution in the spot kick lottery.
It was a horrible start for the hosts as Aodhan Quinn fired their first shot well over the bar.
Next it was Nemanja Nikolič for Chicago, but his shot was plucked from the air by Hildebrandt. It as almost poetic as the Cincy keeper seemed to have Niko’s number all night long.
Cincinnati’s next shooter found his mark and then up stepped the birthday boy. Álvarez, whose lively play created so many chances, had a chance to make a direct impact from the spot, but his effort was also turned aside by the enigmatic Hildebrandt.
With FCC up 2-0, Bastian Schweinsteiger cooly slotted home to give the visitors a whisper of hope, but with Jimmy McLaughlin scoring a third for the hosts it came down to Juninho for Chicago.
The Brazilian stepped up but Hildebrandt guessed right again and tipped the ball around his left hand post.
Within the eruption of the crowd, the lights, the colored smoke from the Bailey, and the Cincinnati players and staff flooding the pitch to celebrate I saw the exhausted, static forms of Niko, Arturo and Basti with their heads hung low, accepting their fate.
Post match press comments from Chicago coach Veljko Paunović gave Cincinnati a lot of credit for a good game plan, but it was their goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt that had saved the day and everyone knew it.
Post game with Arti
Long after the game was over I had waited to chat with Arturo Álvarez. As he came out of the locker room he smiled and came over to me for a brief interview. He was gracious in defeat and also gave the hosts a lot of credit for a great performance.
After suggesting that losing a game such as this on his birthday might have stung a bit he said he was “blessed and happy” to be playing. “What a better way to spend your birthday than to be on a soccer field,” he exclaimed.
He smiled warmly again when I brought up his time in Hungary with Videoton and he recalled fond memories of playing there with Niko and winning the championship. His communication and instinctive link up play with his former teammate was a pleasure to watch.
As he was talking I recognized the obvious joy this relatively seasoned veteran emitted when talking about the game he loves. He’s happy and playing well for a team that’s in-form and playing well in the league. I wished him luck as he headed for the team bus.
It was a great night; surreal in so many ways. I traveled north on a whim hoping to catch a good game and see some familiar faces on the pitch, but left there feeling like I experienced much more.
Something special is happening in Cincinnati and some of the greats of the game came to bear witness while perhaps another emerged. It was a magical moment for the Queen City and I felt privileged to be a part of it all.
Special thanks goes out to FC Cincinnati Director of Public Relations Fumi Kimura who was gracious enough to provide access so we could cover the game and the players in depth.