“Below Average” FC Cincinnati Wins Its 2023 Opener

Taking all three points at home even while getting outplayed is how you start building a championship season.

Three points, but much to improve upon—that’s the lasting takeaway from FC Cincinnati’s season-opening 2-1 victory over Houston. A sellout TQL Stadium crowd witnessed a disjointed showing from the hosts, who are preseason pundit darlings as the club looks to transition from laughing stock (2019-21) to respectability (2022) to title contender following a first-ever playoff appearance last season.

Nick Hagglund celebrates the opening goal by Sergio Santos (right) in FC Cincinnati’s victory over Houston on February 25.

Photograph by Joseph Guzy

Houston dominated possession (62-38%), tallied more shots on goal (7-5), and were extremely threatening from corners (7-0). FC Cincinnati conceded a goal as a result of poor marking on a corner and were fortunate to not have given up at least given an equalizer off the other tenuously defender corners.

Head coach Pat Noonan’s postgame comments likely reflected the thoughts of the 25,513 Orange and Blue-clad supporters watching at TQL Stadium and the thousands more watching on the club’s television debut on Apple TV. “Early on in the season when teams aren’t at their best, you emphasize the importance of winning,” said the second-year skipper. “That was one of the things that we succeeded in tonight. But from myself on down to I would say every player on the field outside of the reserves that come in and I think did a pretty good job, I’m only able to pick out a couple guys that had a strong night. When you’re only able to pick out a few guys that had a strong night, you’re going to struggle. Credit to the group for getting a result when we were below average, both individually and collectively.”

Both Sergio Santos and Obinna Nwobodo registered their first FC Cincinnati goals. Santos, starting for Brenner, gathered and converted a deft through ball from rapidly blossoming Alvaro Barreal in the 19th minute. Nifty interplay between Barreal and Lucho Acosta led to Nwobodo scoring in the 48th minute.

Lineup notes

With Brenner returning to the U.S. early last week after a three-week absence, Santos was always going to usurp his fellow Brazilian in the starting XI. Brenner replaced Santos in the 62nd minute and, like his teammates, struggled to find a rhythm, notching only 12 touches. Houston tallied over 200 more touches than Cincinnati, reflecting the home side’s trouble retaining the ball.

Junior Moreno started at the No. 8 position in midfield and went the full 90 minutes. The 29-year-old scuffled at the end of 2022 but was one of FC Cincinnati’s best players on Saturday. Moreno completed 82% of his passes, tops among FCC players with at least 20 attempted passes. Marco Angulo, the high-profile 20-year-old signing from Ecuador, was an unused substitute.

Yerson Mosquera started over Ian Murphy as the third center back next to Matt Miazga and Nick Hagglund. Mosquera suffered a forgettable moment in his debut, with Houston’s Tate Schmitt outfoxing him on the game-tying corner kick in the 42nd minute. Murphy replaced Mosquera, on loan from the English Premier League’s Wolverhampton Wanderers, in the 73rd minute.

Santiago Arias was strong in his debut at right back, finishing second on the team in touches. His playing 86 minutes in his first regular season match since May 2022 was a massive win for him and the club following a few injury-plagued campaigns. The veteran of major European domestic leagues could become a menace along the right touch line as the season wears on.

FC Cincinnati reportedly staged a preseason competition between youngster Roman Celentano (27 starts in 2022) and veteran Alec Kann (seven starts in 2022), but it was the former garnering the start and the latter not available for selection on Saturday night. The 22-year-old Celentano is one of the league’s rising goalkeeping talents, and he was the main reason FCC held on for the win, coming up with a few of his now-trademark quick reaction saves to stifle Houston.

Hitting the road

Up next is a road date Saturday in Orlando, another preseason media darling expected to push its way into contention in the Eastern Conference. Orlando managed just one shot on target in a 1-0 home win over New York Red Bulls last weekend, but it does have one of the league’s best shot stoppers in Pedro Gallese.

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

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