2017 US Open Cup Quarterfinals: Djiby Fall’s historic winner, FC Cincinnati’s historic defense blanks Miami FC

Posted by | August 2, 2017
FC Cincinnati celebrate their 1-0 win over Miami FC in the US Open Cup Quarterfinals. Photo: Miami FC

FC Cincinnati celebrate their 1-0 win over Miami FC in the US Open Cup Quarterfinals. Photo: Miami FC

FC Cincinnati’s impregnable defense, sound goalkeeping and some timely counterattacking proved a winning formula again, as they upended NASL spring champion Miami FC 1-0 on the road Wednesday night. A Miami FC season high crowd of 10,145 witnessed the Senegalese striker Djiby Fall become the hero for FC Cincinnati once again, tallying his fourth goal of the US Open Cup. Remarkably, all four have been game-winners, making him the first player in the US Open Cup Modern Era (1995-present) to score four of them in a single tournament.

FC Cincinnati’s Mitch Hildebrand, the reigning TheCup.us Player of the Round, is now on the brink of a pair of Modern Era records after earning his fourth straight clean sheet (the team’s fifth straight). He now has a 469-minute personal scoreless streak which is just a few minutes away from Jon Conway’s (San Jose Earthquakes 2000-01) personal record of 473 minutes. Hildebrandt’s 390-minute single-tournament shutout streak is 63 minutes away from breaking that record held by Chris Eylander of the Seattle Sounders of the USL in 2008.

In the Miami game, Hildebrandt made his case for back-to-back Player of the Round honors with three saves, including a game-saving stop late in the contest on a Kwadwo Poku attempt.

FC Cincinnati becomes the first non-MLS side to reach the Semifinals since the Richmond Kickers of the USL advanced to the final four in 2011. FCC will host the New York Red Bulls of MLS on Aug. 15 (8 p.m. EST) at Nippert Stadium where they have drawn record crowds in each of their last two Open Cup matches.

The hosts came out the aggressors, creating a great chance on a good combination between Dylan Mares and Stefano Pinho, who made a blistering run through the left channel. Pinho’s cross just missed everything: dodging an on-running Enzo Rennella near post, skidding past a lunging Mitch Hildebrandt and then sliding just beyond the reach of a late running Poku.

Early chance from Pinho aside, it was a clever tactical decision from FC Cincinnati manager Alan Koch that helped the Queen City visitors who had the better of the play throughout the first half hour. Using his forwards Danni König and Djiby Fall to apply heavy off-ball pressure, Cincinnati made life difficult on the Miami FC back four to move the ball out of the Miami final third. On one occasion, a Rhett Bernstein back pass forced Vega to distribute and his errant pass was intercepted by König, who fired just wide of the right post.

The pressure from Cincinnati helped the visitors continuously create dangerous moments in the opening half, as they forced Miami’s crucial defensive midfielder Richie Ryan, so often a smooth distribution conduit to the creative Miami attackers, very deep. With Ryan functioning almost as a third centerback, Miami’s spacing was disjointed and the team struggled to build any rhythm in possession. The disrupted rhythm made Miami fore things too, with playmakers Poku and Pinho often opting to take multiple defenders on rather than making simple passes into space. The result was a disjointed Miami attack throughout.

This was undoubtedly the plan, and Cincinnati manager Alan Koch was thrilled with the way his team executed in the first half.

“Without question, we wanted to make it hard on Miami to build any rhythm or tempo,” Koch said. “We felt the best way to do that was to pressure the center backs and force Richie Ryan to come back and help. We made him drop deep and they suffered moving the ball as a result.”

Hildebrandt agreed.

“We came into the game with a line of confrontation in mind and we executed it,” said the Cincinnati keeper. “We held our line and we pressured their back line off the ball. I’ve played against Richie Ryan before, when he was with Ottawa and I was with Minnesota. I know and we knew how he can spray the ball around and how important he is to them moving the ball. We did a great job making it harder on him.”

Cincinnati was able generate chances with the ball as well, thanks to the clever play centrally of Aodhan Quinn and the solid play wide from Justin Hoyte, a former Arsenal player and Trinidad and Tobago international. On one first half sequence, Hoyte galloped down the left, cutting inside and waiting on the ball for support before switching the point of attack just outside the area. The switch freed up Quinn, who put a move on Mason Trafford and chipped just high of Daniel Vega from about 21 yards.

Still, when Hildebrandt collected a header off a Richie Ryan cross deep into first half stoppage time, the teams were level headed to the break, despite the visitors looking the more inspired side, outshooting Miami 8-3 and creating the better chances throughout the opening 45.

For Hildebrandt, after breaking Chris Eylander’s (2008 Seattle Sounders, USL) single-tournament shutout streak record of 453 minutes, he deflected praise for the record-setting performance.

“I never thought I’d go 500 minutes without allowing a goal, but all credit to the team and coaches for that,” Hildebrandt said. “Our coaches have done a great job at putting together plans and keeping it simple in terms of giving individual instructions that we can execute. They did that again tonight against a great team in tough conditions.”

The hosts seized the initiative out of the gate in half number two, with manager Alessandro Nesta responding to the backline struggles by moving his line much higher early in the second half. The move paid immediate dividends, as Miami moved the ball with fluidity and tempo.

A menacing run and cross by Blake Smith nearly forced a Cincinnati own goal in the 52nd minute, and the ensuing corner saw Hunter Freeman find Rhett Bernstein in a bit of space, only to see the defender’s shot deflect off a lunging Sem de Wit. Another strong Freeman corner in the 60th minute was headed centrally by Poku, only to see Cincinnati clear away desperately.

But Cincinnati again responded, and this time, the visitors were rewarded for their resilience when Hoyte made a strong run on the left flank and dribbled around Freeman. His cross found late running Djiby Fall at the near post, who slotted home past Daniel Vega for the game’s first goal.

Predictably, Cincinnati dropped into a deep shell after taking the lead, and Miami struggled to find the final ball. A silly foul by Sem de Wit, who had plenty of help defense, gave Miami a free kick in a dangerous position in the 76th minute, and again Freeman delivered a dangerous ball only to see Hildebrandt save substitute Michel’s header on the far post.

Following a water break, Blake Smith found another substitute, Ariel Martinez on a slicing cross, but the Cuban forward headed harmlessly high into the stands. Miami’s best chance to equalize came in minute 88, when Poku made a dazzling run through the center of the pitch, beating three Cincinnati defenders and firing at Hildebrandt, who made a stunning save. Rennella made a great run and had a chance to hammer home the rebound far post, but couldn’t get his body squared and shouldered the ball just wide.

Unfortunately, in the final minutes of the game FC Cincinnati received a heavy blow when Fall received a yellow card. Combined with yellow cards he received against AFC Cleveland (Round 2) and Louisville City FC (Round 3), that gave him three, which according to tournament rules means he will receive a one-game suspension and will miss the Semifinal match against the Red Bulls.

Miami manager Alessandro Nesta credited the opponent for making life difficult.

“They made it hard for us to move the ball,” Nesta said. “We made changes in the second half, pushed up our line, pushed up our wings, moved our forwards central. In the end, we had chances to score and win. Against Atlanta, Poku scored in the end. Tonight, he doesn’t. That’s football. Sometimes you lose.”

Cincinnati’s reward for the victory is a home semifinal against the New York Red Bulls. It’s another chance to showcase one of America’s blossoming soccer cities, and that’s not lost on Cincinnati’s players and coaches.

“To play in front of those types of crowds, 20,000-30,000 fans a night in only our second year, it’s incredible,” Hildebrandt said. “The way they have embraced us, even though it is only our second year, I feel like the club and the city deserve this run.

Alan Koch agreed with his star goalkeeper.

“What we have in Cincinnati and what we’re building, it isn’t just special in the United States,” he said. “It’s special globally. To have that type of immediate connection with your city is incredible. We want to keep it going.”