FC Cincinnati Crushes Inter Miami to Take Control of the Eastern Conference

Acosta and Noonan downplay the “statement win” over the Messi-less club, but it was a very impressive performance.

Luca Orellano dribbled, wiggled, and raced around the latest Inter Miami defender cosplaying as a traffic cone, threading the end line perfectly to feed Yuya Kubo for FC Cincinnati’s fifth goal. Just feet away, the Bailey transitioned into its latest goal-induced hysteria. DeAndre Yedlin, traded to FCC from Miami in March, urged the sellout crowd to raise the decibel level even higher.

Another five minutes later, Miami had picked up four additional yellow cards, including two from the normally placid Sergio Busquets, who earned himself a pair of cautions, an early shower, and a stadium-wide farewell serenade after being sent off for dissent. FC Cincinnati’s 6-1 thrashing of Inter Miami Saturday night was a statement victory for the hosts (48 points), who used a combination of precision, flair, and a well-timed formation tweak to leapfrog previous frontrunners Miami (47 points) into first in the Eastern Conference as well as the MLS Supporters’ Shield standings.

It must be said that the Herons were without Lionel Messi—still one of the best players in the world, even at 37 years of age—two 2024 MLS All-Stars (Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez), and midfield engine Diego Gomez (seven goal contributions in 2024). Post-match in a content but not overly jubilant home locker room, reigning league MVP Lucho Acosta rejected the notion that the Orange and Blue sought to “send a message” against a side FCC will face again at least once more (August 24) this season. “Not at all,” said Acosta, who registered a goal and two assists in a typically dynamic display. “They were missing some key pieces tonight. Everyone should know that. We played our game. They played theirs. No message or anything like that. We’re us.”

Though Acosta struck a properly diplomatic tone for an early July regular season tilt, just because Saturday’s result doesn’t mean everything shouldn’t mean the shellacking doesn’t mean something. Miami’s starting XI still featured players who have World Cup, Champions League, and MLS Cup medals on their mantels and substantial experience in major tournaments with their national teams. Each side was playing its third contest in eight days. And the Men in Pink had both enjoyed an impressive run of recent form sans Messi (four successive wins) and away from South Florida (second in MLS in road victories).

“We’ll see them at the end of August, and it’ll look entirely different based on likely personnel on the field,” FCC head coach Pat Noonan said post-match. “They still have a very strong team, and that’s why I’m very pleased about the performance.”

FC Cincinnati set up shop in the visitors’ attacking third, tallying 10 shots on target in equaling a single-match club mark for goals. Five different players scored, but none from the five players identified as “attackers” on the team sheet. Noonan elected to start Orellano further up the pitch as an attacking winger instead of wingback. And with four “traditional” forwards available, the gaffer opted for the adaptable Kubo as a deep-lying forward to bring Miami’s slow-footed center backs away from goalkeeper Drake Callender.

The adjustment was a rousing success, with Acosta and Orellano (two assists) dribbling and passing circles around Miami’s meandering midfield and back line. The match’s opening goal featured a quick turn and burst from Orellano that left defender Sergii Kryvtsov chasing his fumes through the ample space in Miami’s half, leaving the freshly minted All-Star to feed Kubo for the first of the Japanese international’s two scores.

Miami leveled the match in the 21st minute, though. Alvas Powell lost his marker on a corner kick, leaving Kryvtsov to head past Roman Celentano. The equalizer came after Acosta and Orellano fluffed golden chances to bury Miami early, an anxious thought for FCC fans in the moment that would prove to be misplaced apprehension.

The two sides combined for eight shots on goal through 27 minutes, correctly forecasting further scoreboard activity. But instead of a duet, this was a solo act. In the 36th minute, an important Obinna Nwobodo interception paved the way for Acosta’s 50th club goal. Two minutes later, Acosta’s perfectly weighted corner kick begot a gorgeous long-range volley by Pavel Bucha. FC Cincinnati were beginning to feel themselves.

On the stroke of halftime, Acosta’s incredible field-splitting pass found Yamil Asad waiting on the doorstep of the Miami goal. After toying with Callender and a few Heron defenders to manufacture an angle, Asad found the back of the net for a 4-1 lead. “I thought he was outstanding,” said Noonan of Orellano, before adding, “Lucho’s Lucho. I expect that.”

Any potential Miami comeback was dashed with Kubo completing his brace off of Orellano’s aforementioned sequence of chance creation brilliance. Dada Valenzuela’s first league goal capped off the scoring in the 72nd minute. As the final minutes ticked away, the Bailey taunted the Herons with a chant of “You need Messi!” Presuming good health, the return leg will feature Messi, Suarez, Alba, et al, though the wild success of Noonan’s formation wrinkle provides FCC with another tactical card to play next month—or perhaps save for a possible playoff matchup.

“How we used the wingbacks to be able to create those spaces for the attacking midfielders and how those guys came off the (back) line, we thought we could put Luca and Lucho in good spots,” Noonan said of the tactical change away from the team’s usual two-striker setup. “And if they could be able to turn and face goal, then we could utilize the legs of DeAndre and Yamil out wide and give us a run to goal.”

Time will be the judge if any psychological advantage was gained from the 6-1 scoreline, but at minimum FC Cincinnati supplied Miami with a front-row seat to its tenacity and flexibility. Kubo, who started the season at wingback, is now second on the club in goals. Orellano has added “attacking winger” to his ability to play high-level wingback on either side of the pitch. Yedlin has the chops to both attack and defend the flanks and shepherd the back line as a center back. And the ace in the hole is Acosta—now second in the league in goal contributions (27) as he mounts an impressive MVP defense—who is capable of popping up anywhere on the pitch to inflict havoc.

On Saturday, Charlotte gets the next shot at slowing down FCC, which has won 12 of 14 (the Orange and Blue downed D.C. United 3-2 midweek) and letting the entirety of Major League Soccer know that it won’t yield the Supporters’ Shield lightly.

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

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