FC Cincinnati Avoids Potential Trap Against NY Red Bulls

A calm, clinical 3-0 thrashing sets up FCC for success in the first round of playoffs.
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As it turns out, FC Cincinnati just needed to play a meaningful match. Clinical and (mostly) calm, FCC scored on all three of its shots on target and a rarely troubled defense registered a clean sheet Sunday night in the first tilt in a best-of-3 first round East playoff series against the New York Red Bulls.

Since winning the Supporters’ Shield vs. Toronto on September 30, FC Cincinnati had more or less been in cruise control (or worse)—particularly in first halves—in its three subsequent matches. Meanwhile the Red Bulls entered on a winning parade, prevailing in three straight to close the regular season and claim the club’s 14th consecutive postseason appearance. New York then blew away Charlotte 5-2 in last week’s No. 8/No. 9 single-game Wild Card match, posting a 3-0 lead after only 37 minutes.

Further, the Red Bulls edged FCC 2-1 on Supporters’ Shield celebration night back on October 4, briefly sullying the festivities in a match that sported 33 fouls, eight yellow cards, and a red card for Cincinnati’s Alvas Powell. So the question had to be asked: Would FC Cincinnati, seemingly content to see the season out unbothered post-Toronto, assuage fan concerns with a comprehensive showing in TQL Stadium’s playoff debut?

The answer was a sonorous and soggy yes. There was zero complacency from FCC, which took zero mercy on the Red Bulls by reducing the visitors’ five shots on target to mostly speculative efforts while largely steering clear of New York’s energy drink-fueled antics and style of play. “We did not play the way that they wanted to play, which I think was key,” Lucho Acosta told the team’s website post-match. “I think we’ve shown all season that we’re prepared for anything, so we were prepared for this game.”

The contest—which doubled as a rematch of FC Cincinnati’s successful playoff debut in Red Bull Arena just over a year ago—required 20-odd minutes for the two sides to feel each other out. FCC struck first in the 23rd minute. Alvaro Barreal and Dominique Badji exchanged one-touch passes before Junior Moreno sprung Barreal on goal with a lovely through ball. Barreal did the rest with an exquisite left-footed finish to the opposite post to finish off the beach blonde to beach blonde connection.

Badji’s hustle created the second goal, as the veteran striker chased down a loose Red Bull back pass and forced New York goalkeeper Carlos Coronel into a rushed clearance attempt far outside of the penalty area. Acosta corralled Coronel’s poor clearance and coolly chipped the ball into the open net from 50 yards out. Barreal completed his brace off a (surprise, surprise) well-timed ball from Acosta in the 89th minute to tie a bow on the performance.

“Over the past month, we haven’t been our strongest,” head coach Pat Noonan said. “Maybe it was what was at stake and the start of the playoffs, but they stepped up and knew the challenges that were in front of them, and I thought they managed the game in a pretty strong way.”

Scoring the first goal was key for any number of statistical reasons, but the salient one was forcing the Red Bulls to chase the match as well as decreasing the odds of FC Cincinnati (completely) falling for New York’s trap, which would have turned the match into a midfield slog. “A lot of teams when they play Red Bull, they kind of play (RBNY’s) game, which is credit to Red Bull, because they play a difficult game,” said former Red Bull Matt Miazga. “Once you get stuck in it, it’s hard to get out of it. But I think we were able to focus on some tactical tidbits with the ball that we did today that we practiced in training.”

It was both fitting and ironic that Miazga offered this perspective, given the center back picked up a yellow card for a needless hard challenge in the 33rd minute and had to be pulled away from the referee by Ray Gaddis. Barreal and Aaron Boupendza—back in the team’s good graces after his suspension last weekend—also received yellow cards in the match. FYI: Three yellow cards equate to a suspension in the postseason.

I watched the match from TQL Stadium’s second deck. Pre-match, I had visions of the 2018 USL playoff opener when a well-below-sellout crowd chewed its collective fingernails off in chilly Nippert Stadium as No. 1 FC Cincinnati scraped by No. 8 Nashville in penalties. Given another No. 1/No. 8 matchup, questionable/rainy weather in the forecast, and FCC’s sleepy form, I was curious if the hosts would need to be jolted awake.

Nothing to fear, however. FC Cincinnati delivered its best showing in weeks and, though TQL Stadium was below capacity, the supporters were thunderous throughout—and occasionally vulgar. A “f*** the Red Bulls” chant from The Bailey elicited a tsk-tsk from the public address announcer at one stage.

The second match of the best-of-3 series is Saturday evening at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. Game 3, if necessary, is slated for November 11 at 2 p.m. back at TQL Stadium.

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

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