Following a 1-0 win over New York City FC last week to advance to the Round of 16 in the U.S. Open Cup and a bye week in league play over the weekend, FC Cincinnati currently sits at 9-1-3 (wins-losses-draws) in 13 combined MLS and U.S. Open matches. The Orange and Blue are second (24 points) in the Eastern Conference, having toggled first and second place with the New England Revolution (24 points, better goal differential) for weeks. FCC resumes MLS play tonight against visiting Montreal (15 points) before the season’s first Hell Is Real derby Saturday night at TQL Stadium opposite Columbus (15 points).
Thus begins a critical juncture of the season for FC Cincinnati, which will play five times before June arrives. Let’s recap the season to date and ponder what the future holds.
1. Are one-goal wins the sign of a winning mentality or dumb luck?
All nine triumphs, including each of FC Cincinnati’s seven league wins, have come by a single goal. In fact, the Orange and Blue’s 5-1 defeat to St. Louis is their sole tilt to be decided by more than one score. So is this trend a strength or a weakness?
I vote strength, and I expect more wins by two-plus goals to come. As corny and cliche as it sounds, good teams consistently pull out close victories. And even if regression is to come, it likely won’t arrive until 2024, when FC Cincinnati’s attack could look drastically different. (More on that below…)
2. Should you be worried about Brandon Vazquez?
Not yet, but it’s time for Vazquez to get cooking. The big man did score the lone goal in last week’s midweek U.S. Open Cup victory over NYCFC but has been limited to two goals in 11 league matches. Expecting him to replicate last season’s totals (18 goals in 33 MLS appearances) wasn’t realistic, but it’s fair to wonder if Vazquez is suffering from a natural regression and/or missing the presence of Brenner, who has started just six matches in 2023.
Internationally, Vazquez finally received his first U.S. men’s national team call-up in January, scoring his first goal for the Stars and Stripes in his debut. But while he appears to have settled his international future (he was eligible to play for Mexico as well), his club future is more uncertain, despite signing a contract extension last August to extend his stay in Cincinnati through 2025. In a January interview, the 23-year-old admitted that weighing his future options can be “a little overwhelming at times.” He’s had long-time interest from Liga MX and has been linked to clubs in England and Germany.
FCC head coach Pat Noonan said last October that he didn’t expect Vazquez to be in MLS for long if his striker’s goal scoring form continued. FC Cincinnati would gladly accept a scoring surge from Vazquez, even if a return to form meant an offseason exit.
3. How long will Yerson Mosquera stick around?
Mosquera joined FC Cincinnati on loan from English Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers in early February. The 22-year-old center back has immediately become a key cog in FCC’s back line, starting every league match. His consistency playing alongside fellow center back mainstays Matt Miazga and Nick Hagglund is the central reason FC Cincinnati has flipped its defensive fortunes. In 2022, Cincinnati surrendered the third-most goals in the East; this season, the club has yielded the third-fewest goals in the East.
The 6-foot-2 Mosquera is a constant threat on set pieces, too, and he’s scored a pair of pivotal goals, notching the lone score in a 1-0 victory over Miami and the equalizer in a 1-1 draw at New England. He also ranks fourth in the squad in progressive passes. The Colombian youth international’s loan expires on June 30, but it would be surprising if Mosquera didn’t finish the season in Cincinnati.
4. How much does Brenner have left to give?
The No. 9 is off to Italy after FC Cincinnati’s match with New England on July 1. Brenner missed five matches sorting out his transfer to Serie A club Udinese, then got injured after coming on as a substitute May 6 vs. D.C. United. He’s expected back in short order, but my hunch is Brenner will spend more time coming off the bench until July. Cincinnati still needs his added creativity in attack, so he should still be a regular in the side until he trades in cheese coneys for Bolognese and pasta.
5. Is another U.S. Open Cup run in the cards?
FC Cincinnati’s next U.S. Open Cup match is May 23 at the New York Red Bulls, who just axed head coach Gerhard Stuber and sit 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference. Coincidentally, it was the Red Bulls who rallied from a 2-0 second-half deficit to prevail 3-2 in extra time to end Cincinnati’s magical 2017 Open Cup run in the tournament semifinals. Should Cincinnati prevail next week, it would host the winner of Columbus Crew and second-division side Pittsburgh Riverhounds on June 6/7. The tourney semifinals are slated for August 23, with the final taking place on September 27.
After opting for a youth movement in the Open Cup win over Louisville, Noonan played six typical starters against New York City last week—though he had the benefit of a coming bye weekend in league play. The skipper won’t have that luxury vs. Red Bulls, with the match sandwiched between the Hell Is Real derby and a road match at Colorado, the last of three matches in eight days.
FC Cincinnati will be favored against the Red Bulls and would also have the edge against the Columbus-Pittsburgh victor. Cincinnati’s advance will in part rest with Noonan and the front office weighing possible silverware against the grind of an eight-month league slate.
6. Will Pat Noonan be the next coach of the U.S men’s national team?
I kid, I kid. New U.S. soccer sporting director Matt Crocker, who is heading up the search for the next USMNT manager, doesn’t even start until August 2. As impressive as Noonan has been in Cincinnati, there are many more domestic and international candidates ahead of him. Now, if Noonan continues FCC’s upward trajectory and adds the first piece(s) of silverware to the franchise’s MLS trophy room, anything is possible.
7. Will a right wing back emerge?
Ray Gaddis (seven league starts) has been the preferred option, though Alvas Powell received the nod in the last league tilt vs. D.C. United. Santiago Arias got the call in the season opener but hasn’t appeared in a match since April 15 due to injury. Gaddis is the best defender. Powell has pace to burn, a useful asset to stretch the field and also recover defensively. A veteran of first division play in the Netherlands and Spain, Arias has the pedigree and the talent but hasn’t been able to play regularly for years due to recurring injuries.
Noonan likely doesn’t mind the rotation among his three veterans this early in the campaign, but come fall FC Cincinnati will require consistency along the right flank before the opposition really begin to load on star left wing back Alvaro Barreal.
8. When will Lucho Acosta sign a contract extension?
The club captain is in the midst of his last guaranteed campaign in Cincinnati, though a team option exists to extend his stay in 2024. Reports surfaced in late March that Acosta’s representatives and FC Cincinnati had begun preliminary extension talks. Even with Acosta approaching his 29th birthday on May 31, expect the two sides to work out a two- to three-year extension with a pay bump following his MVP-caliber 2022 season.
9. Can FC Cincinnati win the Supporters’ Shield?
It’s possible! Much of Question No. 5 applies here. If FCC continues to advance in the U.S. Open Cup and progresses deep into the upcoming month-long Leagues Cup, keeping the team healthy will be a challenge. But the priority will always be the MLS season.
10. Is the U.S. men’s national team returning to TQL Stadium?
TQL Stadium is hosting two Gold Cup quarterfinal matches on July 9, the first-ever soccer doubleheader at the two-year-old pitch. Should the U.S. men advance out of the knockout stage, a virtual certainty, they’ll play at TQL Stadium for the third time. Cincinnati will host the winner of Gold Cup Group D vs. the Group A (U.S., Jamaica, Nicaragua, TBD fourth team) runner-up, as well as the winner of Group A vs. the Group D runner-up.
11. What does Chris Albright have up his sleeve?
FC Cincinnati has the deepest, most talented team it’s ever fielded, but the attack will be weakened once Brenner departs. GM Albright and his cohorts have long known the Brazilian was going to leave, so it will be fascinating to see when and how he’s replaced. Sergio Santos is a fine short-term option, but a medium- to long-term solution is needed at striker. Another piece, such as another wing back or a pure attacking winger, would be on my to-do list.
12. Will FC Cincinnati go undefeated at home?
It’s not as crazy as it sounds! Philadelphia went unbeaten in 17 home matches (12 wins, 5 draws) in 2022, while both Philly (nine matches) and Columbus (10 matches) recorded zero home defeats in the COVID-shortended 2020 season. FC Cincinnati has garnered a maximum of six victories from six league tilts in 2023. Last year, the best home winning streak was nine matches, co-held by Philly (East champion) and Los Angeles FC (West champion).
13. Is FC Cincinnati actually this good?
It’s wild to think we’re less than two years removed from the Orange and Blue logging 20 points in an entire season. This team has room for improvement, yes, but FCC is a talented, well-coached side. I don’t see any reason for a drop-off. Making the playoffs should be an expected achievement. The real question: How far will Cincinnati advance come late October and the MLS playoffs?
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.