To me, the actual Leagues Cup trophy is a bit lacking. It reminds me of an expensive vase, as well as those fancy sinks found in chic bar bathrooms.
To be sure, FC Cincinnati desired that fancy bathroom sink. Commentary from head coach Pat Noonan and his players after last weekend’s Round of 32 penalty kick loss to Nashville indicated as much. Fifteen days between the loss to Nashville and the resumption of league play on August 20 in Columbus for the second Hell Is Real derby of the season isn’t ideal.
And yet Friday night’s defeat should serve as unplanned but needed rest for certain regulars—namely All-Stars Lucho Acosta, Alvaro Barreal, and Matt Miazga—and a mental reset ahead of a U.S. Open Cup semifinal against Lionel Messi-led Inter Miami and the final two months of league play.
From August 20 through October 12, FC Cincinnati will play 12 matches, 13 if it reaches the U.S. Open Cup final. At least 11 of those will be in the Eastern Time Zone, with a minimum of six at TQL Stadium. If Cincinnati reaches the U.S. Open championship match, it will either travel to Utah to face Real Salt Lake or host the Houston Dynamo. Beginning August 20, the Orange and Blue play four times in 11 days.
The first Hell Is Real was dominated by Acosta (two goals) in a 3-2 victory, but now FC Cincinnati will contend with a reshaped Columbus Crew attack. Gone is former MVP Lucas Zelarayán, but the Crew are reinforced by U.S. men’s national team winger Julian Gressel and 2020 MLS Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi. The latter’s arrival as Zelarayán’s replacement was nearly as shocking as Zelarayán’s transfer to Saudi Arabia. Rossi is a proven MLS scoring dynamo, having registered 48 goals in 104 regular season appearances for Los Angeles FC from 2018-21.
Hell Is Real is the first of 11 remaining league matches for Cincinnati, which owns an eight-point cushion over New England in the East and in the Supporters’ Shield standings. Aside: I’m interested to see how New England reacts to the absence of head coach Bruce Arena, who is on administrative leave after allegedly making “insensitive and inappropriate remarks.”
FC Cincinnati remains near-impregnable at home—The Leagues Cup match was its first home loss of 2023—and is in good shape health-wise. Sergio Santos is dealing with his monthly injury, but could be back for Columbus. Dominique Badji should be ready to go; the striker hasn’t played since July 1. Santiago Arias, who left the country to acquire a P1 visa over the last international break, was scheduled to arrive back in Cincinnati last weekend.
Three days after Columbus, Messi Mania arrives in Cincinnati. Thus far, the Messi experiment has gone about as well as Miami, MLS, and Apple (arguably his employer here in the U.S.) could have hoped. Entering as a substitute in his first match vs. Cruz Azul, Messi won the game with a last-minute free kick. He’s then notched braces in Leagues Cup victories over Atlanta, Orlando, and Houston, notably an 85th-minute game-tying free kick vs. Houston. That’s seven goals in four matches, with three assists to boot. Yeah, things are going well.
Messi has obviously transformed Miami’s fortunes, but the additions of his former FC Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquests and Jordi Alba have given him familiarity in a new league. Not that he would have needed it anyway. In any case, this revamped Inter Miami side is much better than its league-worst points total indicates.
Not only will FC Cincinnati be in for one its toughest matches of the season vs. Messi & Co. on August 23, but it’s possible Miami rockets up the league standings and sneaks into the postseason, potentially setting up a nightmare early-round playoff matchup for FCC.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.