Good vibrations followed FC Cincinnati in the days leading out of its bye week and into last’s weekend match against Atlanta United. The signing of midfielder Obinna Nwobodo—even though the franchise’s newest Designated Player won’t take the field until sometime next month—signaled that the front office and ownership are committed to improving a threadbare roster.
The onboarding of Nwobodo was followed by a gritty weekend draw at Atlanta United and an extra-time victory last night in the club’s first U.S. Open match since June 2019. Four points in four days is welcome relief for a club that entered its bye weekend losers of two straight in overall downtrodden showings.
Last night’s match against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the USL Championship at TQL Stadium featured a heavily rotated starting XI for FC Cincinnati. Of the 10 players to accumulate the most minutes played for the club in 2022, only Nick Hagglund started the game. And only four additional players (Lucho Acosta, Yuka Kubo, Junior Moreno, and Alvas Powell) made the bench. Regular starters Dominique Badji, Tyler Blackett, Geoff Cameron, Ray Gaddis, and Brandon Vazquez didn’t even dress.
There were new faces up and down a starting lineup whose average age wasn’t even 24 years old. Winger Isaac Atanga, fullback Zico Bailey, and midfielder Haris Medunjanin netted their first starts of the campaign. Left back John Nelson, plagued by injuries all season, made his first start for the club. Rookie goalkeeper Roman Celentano and midfielder Harrison Robledo made their first-ever starts for an MLS team. It was also a welcome sight to see midfielder Allan Cruz make his first appearance since March 26 following the death of his sister.
Pittsburgh entered in good form, second in the USL’s Eastern Conference with 13 out of a possible 18 points. In the first half, the visitors were the more threatening side, registering the only two shots on goal and out-shooting the hosts 6-3. FCC regained control in the second half, nearly scoring on numerous occasions but lacking the final touch.
The game’s first score didn’t come until Alvaro Barreal drew a penalty in extra time. The 21-year-old winger converted from the spot in the 95th minute for his first score of the season. Barreal put the game out of reach four minutes later, thrashing a shot into the right corner of the net for a 2-0 win.
The final numbers were a bit gracious toward FC Cincinnati, as it failed to allow any shots on target after the first half and added eight of its own. The Orange and Blue move on to play a TBD opponent in the Round of 32 on either May 10 or 11.
Over the weekend, FC Cincinnati eked out a 0-0 draw at Atlanta in a battle of injury-riddled squads. Cameron, who suffered an injury late last week in training, and Powell, who picked up a knock in the team’s last tilt on April 2, were both unavailable for selection. In stepped Badji and rookie center back Ian Murphy. Badji, a typical starter at forward, shifted into a makeshift left wingback/midfielder role and, as noted by Cincinnati Soccer Talk, played on the right side of the pitch after Hagglund accrued his second yellow card in the second half.
Though FCC finished the match with zero shots on goal and just six shots total, it was the better side in the first half. The second half was a different story—particularly when Hagglund was sent off after picking up his second yellow in the 76th minute—as Atlanta sent wave after wave of attack at a makeshift Orange and Blue defense, finishing with 22 shots (10 on target).
The Man of the Match was easily FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Alec Kann, the former longtime backup in Atlanta, who registered six saves and saved a penalty kick in the 60th minute, nullifying Atlanta’s 3.4-1.7 advantage in expected goals. The clean sheet was FCC’s first of the season.
FC Cincinnati’s next opponent will be its toughest of the season, as league-best Los Angeles FC (16 points, plus-10 goal differential) makes its first-ever trip to TQL Stadium on Sunday. A draw, which would extend the positive post-bye vibes, is realistically the best result FC Cincinnati can expect against MLS’s top-scoring team.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.