The coolest part about what happened at Nippert Stadium last night isn't that the atmosphere was awesome, or that the stands were packed. It wasn't that the local soccer team was given two-plus hours to shine in the national spotlight provided by ESPN during the game broadcast or in the shows that followed. It wasn't that a loud, emphatic statement about FC Cincinnati's candidacy for MLS expansion, nor was it even that fact that the home team won the game, advancing deeper into the Lamar Hunt US Open.
No, the coolest thing was that with all of the aforementioned providing a backdrop, what played out at Nippert was a damn good soccer game.
I haven't watched a lot of soccer in my life, and while I think that some who claim to not understand the sport fail to grasp how simple it really is, there are nuances and complexities to it that, as a novice, make me very unqualified to try to describe what made FC Cincinnati's win over the Chicago Fire so compelling, and how dramatic the game actually was. If you didn't see it, ask someone who did. If you did see it, either in person or on TV, then you know of what I write.
It was, in my brief time watching and following soccer, the best game I've seen, one not done justice by a glance at the scoreboard at the end of both regulation and extra time. That no goals were scored by either side says nothing about how good, how tense, and how entertaining the game really was. There were times when it seemed as if Chicago was on the verge of scoring and taking total control of the game, only to get denied. Mostly by FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt. At times by his teammates. Sometimes pure, blind luck intervened.
So too did the officiating, at least with FC Cincinnati. You know a team matters when non-soccer fans are taking to Twitter to vent about blown handball calls or questionable offsides that negate goals. The controversy, while frustrating, did add an element of intrigue to a game that seemed at times one-sided in favor of the Fire, felt often as if it was teetering on the brink for FC Cincinnati - who couldn't cash in on their scoring chances - and was impossible to not get sucked in if you were watching.
120 minutes of scoreless soccer yielded game-deciding penalty kicks, where Hildebrandt was at is head-standing best. He prevented Chicago from taking the lead, stopping their first attempt, then made Josu's initial PK goal stand up with a save of the Fire's second attempt. After Harrison Delbridge and Jimmy McLaughlin connected for goals, Hildebrandt ended the game and drama while starting the party at Nippert with one final save.
The significance of the win for FC Cincinnati will be talked about for days. They're three wins away from a US Open Cup championship, and their latest performance could not have made a better case to Major League Soccer for expansion. But among my buddies - most of whom are even newer to soccer than I am - all of that took a backseat to what really was an exceptionally entertaining game.
I got texts during the game from people I hear from when the Reds or Bengals are playing. A friend of mine who once swore he'd never go to a soccer game melting my phone with his analysis. Another guy checked in from the Reds game to tell me that he'd heard that what was happening at Nippert was worth bailing the ballpark early for to watch across the street. These are people who either flipped over to ESPN for a few minutes, or scanned social media briefly, and found what they were seeing interesting enough to stick with and get invested in.
If more soccer games are like the one I watched last night, I'll be hooked.
That, to me, is what was most powerful about last night. Nothing against anything that's played out on the pitch over the past year-and-a-half, but since the team's debut last spring it's been the things that have surrounded the games that have led the conversation about FC Cincinnati. Among the next steps in this quickly-growing franchise's evolution is to consistently stage games like last night's, the kind that make non-fans into casual ones, and make casual ones want to become die-hards. Nothing will help FC Cincinnati's growth like winning, but few things will be as healthy for the overall FC Cincinnati movement as moments that make people latch on emotionally to what's happening in the games, not just everything that's happening around them. It's one thing to earn people's interest, it's another to keep their attention, and it's still another to have them be completely bought in emotionally.
Those things all happen if the games are good. Last night's game was really, really good.