Assessing FC Cincinnati at the Season’s Halfway Point

Lucho Acosta and the team in general are playing even better than expected, if that’s possible. Inter Miami looks to be FCC’s main rival for another Supporters’ Shield.
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FC Cincinnati’s club record seven-match winning streak was terminated last week by visiting Nashville, which used bachelor-party-on-Lower-Broadway energy to race out to a 2-0 first-half advantage that stood for all 90 minutes. Now in the midst of a 16-day break—due a bye week and the June international window—the Orange and Blue are off until a June 15 road match at San Jose. Let’s look back and ahead at what’s to come in the second half of the season.

A second straight Supporters’ Shield?

With 10 wins, three losses, and three draws (33 points), FCC is nearly halfway through its 34-match MLS slate for 2024. In the Supporters’ Shield race, the Garys are two points behind Inter Miami in the East—though the local lads have two games in hand—and are level on points with West-leading Real Salt Lake, which has played 17 league matches.

A second successive Shield is firmly possible, much to the chagrin of this writer who forecasted a “step back” in league play. I still remain concerned about Pat Noonan’s crew peaking too soon, however.

Acosta remains in MVP form

Last week, reigning MVP Lucho Acosta earned player of the month honors for the fourth time. In FC Cincinnati’s magnificent May (five wins, one loss), he became the first FCC player to notch a goal contribution (goal or assist) in nine straight contests and the eighth player in league history to tally at least 10 assists in four consecutive campaigns.

Acosta, who turned 30 on May 31, has seven goals and 10 assists on the season, putting him on course to exceed his 2022 production (10 goals, 19 assists), but come up a whisker short of 2023’s incredible feats (17 goals, 14 assists). Slacker! In all seriousness, he remains as dangerous as ever, holding the league lead in key passes delivered despite the loss of Brandon Vazquez, the absence of Aaron Boupendza, the struggles of Corey Baird, and the on-the-fly integration of Kevin Kelsy.

It’s reasonable to suggest that the Orange and Blue’s middle-of-the-pack offensive production should ramp as Kelsy gets increasingly comfortable, too. The 19-year-old already has three goals and eight shots on target in 329 minutes, a disconcerting notion for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

Best-in-class defense

FC Cincinnati have allowed 16 goals in 16 matches, tied for second-best in MLS. The club shipped five goals in its final two pre-break forays against Toronto and Nashville, a spike that snapped a streak of permitting zero or one goal six matches in a row.

Free agent center back All-Star Miles Robinson has predictably been stellar in his first (and likely only) season in Cincinnati. The return of Nick Hagglund and the emergence of Kipp Keller as a reliable backup mean FCC should survive Robinson’s coming absence—he’s due for major USMNT minutes in the upcoming Copa América tournament. Typically a tournament limited to South American national teams, the 2024 edition commencing on June 20 features six teams from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean along with 10 South American countries and will be played exclusively in the U.S.

Back to FCC’s stingy defense. Goalkeeper Roman Celentano missed a month with injury but still ranks among the league leaders in clean sheets and clean sheet percentage, and he’s tops in save percentage and goals against per 90 minutes. The third-year stopper is a strong bet for his first All-Star selection. Celentano was not taken as an overage selection for the U.S. men’s Olympic team, a bummer for the 23-year-old but a relief for FC Cincinnati. The Americans begin Olympic group stage play on July 24 against host nation France.

Missing Messi

FCC is slated to play Inter Miami for the first time this season on July 6 at TQL Stadium, with the return tilt scheduled for August 24 in South Florida. There’s a chance Lionel Messi could miss both matches.

Messi joined up with Argentina’s Copa América squad earlier this week, and the tournament final is scheduled for July 14. Argentina, the reigning Copa and World Cup champions, are betting favorites to retain their Copa crown. At minimum, La Albiceleste should advance to the quarterfinal round, held July 4-6. Thus, the only chance of a healthy Messi coming to Cincinnati in July is if Argentina are eliminated after their final group stage game on June 29.

The Leagues Cup begins July 26 and hosts its final on August 25. Miami won the 2023 Leagues Cup and is one of the favorites to play deep into the tournament again. Should FC Cincinnati and/or Miami reach the semifinal round (August 20 or 21), the teams’ August 24 match would be postponed.

The results of FCC’s two games against Miami will be influential in the race for homefield advantage as well as the Supporters’ Shield race, so stay focused on Messi’s tournament progress this summer.

Up next

FC Cincinnati has not played in San Jose since its inaugural campaign of 2019, when it lost 1-0 in the final match of the Alan Koch era. Only two players (Hagglund and Spencer Richey) on FCC’s 18-person match day squad then are still playing in MLS. The Orange and Blue bludgeoned San Jose 6-0 in the teams’ last meeting in September 2022.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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