It has been 14 years since the Red Bulls last appeared in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semi-Finals. That year they overcame arch-rival D.C. United to secure a spot in the tournament Final. But this year could not be more different.
Instead of a long-time rival, the Red Bulls will play their first-ever match at Nippert Stadium against FC Cincinnati - a club that isn’t even as old as head coach Jesse Marsch’s tenure with the team. But despite being a second-division USL club, Cincinnati has made waves with a near-constant stream of devoted fans at every game. That devoted fanbase has proven to be a big advantage for the team, as the atmosphere has proven to be the bane of the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire.
We spoke to Cincinnati Soccer Talk host Bryan Weigel about the upcoming game at Nippert Stadium to find out what the Red Bulls can expect against their first-time foe:
Q1. What kind of formation and tactics do Cincinnati use, and what should the Red Bulls do to overcome them?
I'm not sure this question can ever be accurately answered. FC Cincinnati has run out many different player combinations throughout the 2017 season. It began with a 4-2-3-1 then changed to a 4-3-3. Now with recent signings, Coach Alan Koch has shifted into a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 depending on the opponent. I would expect to see a 3-4-3 which might look more like a 5-4-1 defensively. The absence of Djiby Fall to yellow card accumulation cannot be understated. Yes, we beat Chicago without him, but the smart runs and his hold up play will be missed. Without him up top, I would expect to see Danni König at the top of the formation with a combination of wingers Kevin Schinder, Jimmy McLaughlin, Andrew Wiedeman or Kadeem Dacres on either side. The first thing FCC will look to do is clog the middle & force New York to play wide for crosses into the box. The center backs of Cincinnati are our strength with all-league CB Harrison Delbridge & former MLS rookie of the year Austin Berry standing guard. FCC may press the New York defense to make a mistake, but will probably be worried about Royer or BWP opening them up. Just like they did vs. Chicago and Columbus, I'd expect FCC to bunker hard for the first 60' then bring in impact subs to counter-attack for the last 30'.
Q2. Mitch Hildebrand is in the midst of the single greatest goalkeeping performance in the 100+ year history of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Where did this come from and what's his story?
Mitch has been astounding since arriving in 2016 and fans of FC Cincinnati have seen his quality since day 1. The 2016 USL Goalkeeper of the Year, Hildebrandt is a vocal leader on the pitch and tirelessly looks to organize his defense. As a former backup with the NASL version of Minnesota United, Hildebrandt struggled to get time before his arrival in Cincinnati. Honestly, he was one of the bigger question marks going into the inaugural season, but after an amazing start, he quickly silenced any doubters. I think any goalkeeper will tell you that saving 3 PK's is unheard of and I wouldn't expect that again, but in my opinion, Hildebrandt is absolutely an MLS level keeper. If he is a member of the Orange & Blue in 2018, I will be extremely happy.
Q3. Between the sellout crowds of 20,000+ per game, the stability in the front office and their performance on the field, do you think FC Cincinnati will become an MLS franchise next year - and if not, when?
I would argue that early in 2017 FC Cincinnati was far from stable in the front office & on the field. Team President & GM Jeff Berding pulled the plug on former Head Coach John Harkes the day before the team departed to Florida for a preseason tournament. Coach Alan Koch (assistant at the time) was installed as Head Coach immediately, but results were mixed in the first half of the 2017 campaign. That move, however, seems to be looking great as Koch has overseen a transformation of the roster and an excellent change in form. The 20,000+ fans in attendance every week have never waivered in their support and you have seen the players really begin to battle for the city.
I do believe that Cincinnati will be an MLS franchise with Sacramento for the 2020 season. Jeff Berding has at least 1 if not 2 viable stadium plans for the club which should allow them to break ground immediately once their name is called. We could indeed be in a similar situation as NYRB with our stadium across state lines in KY, but that is not a drastic problem as outsiders could think. The Northern Kentucky (Newport) stadium plan would be in the regions urban core and is easily accessible from several main interstates & bridges. The difference in distance from the city's "center" between the Newport site and the West-End location are nearly identical and the Newport site is close to the new Banks and Newport Levee developments. If somehow FC Cincinnati does not have their name called, there would be many people okay with it. This is not an MLS-or-bust crowd.
DF Berry - DeWit - Delbridge
MF Josu - Bone - Walker - Bahner
FW Schindler - Konig - Wiedeman
FW Djiby Fall