Why are FC Cincinnati and two other MLS teams—each of whom is in the middle of a playoff chase—playing friendlies this week against Liga MX sides as the regular season draws to a close? The 2023 Leagues Cup, that’s why! Can you feel the excitement?
FC Cincinnati (45 points, 6th in East), fresh off a momentous 2-1 victory at Real Salt Lake (RSL), will play Club Deportivo Guadalajara, or “Chivas,” tonight at TQL Stadium. The match will be broadcast nationally by ESPN2 at 7 p.m. as part of the Leagues Cup Showcase.
Nashville (47 points, 4th in West) welcomes Club América tonight while RSL (43 points, 8th in West) will host Atlas tomorrow evening. LAFC and LA Galaxy played Club América and Chivas, respectively, on August 3 to open the Showcase.
The 2023 Leagues Cup will be a month-long tournament between all 47 MLS and Liga MX clubs. Both leagues will pause their seasons, with the Cup champion earning automatic qualification into the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) round of 16. The second- and third-place clubs will qualify for the CCL’s opening round. The tournament also serves as a replacement of sorts for the 2020 Leagues Cup, which was wiped out by the pandemic but was slated to figure eight clubs apiece from MLS and Liga MX.
Bank on FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan sitting most or all of his key regulars to begin tonight’s exhibition match, particularly those who went all 95 minutes Saturday night in Utah. In two U.S. Open Cup matches (non-MLS contests) earlier in 2022, Noonan rotated his lineup.
Last Saturday night, FC Cincinnati overcame a first-half deficit to extend its league-best unbeaten run to 10 games and became the first Eastern Conference side to win at RSL in 16 contests, a streak that stretched back to June 2017. FCC’s two goals came from Brenner, who scored in the 44th minute before adding the eventual game-winner in the 76th minute. Rookie goalkeeper Roman Celentano delivered a sterling showing, notching seven saves—including a penalty stop in first-half stoppage time. “A big three points in a difficult environment against a team that’s in a similar position, fighting for a playoff spot,” Noonan said postgame.
The Orange and Blue, who picked up their first road triumph since May 14, have now lost just once over their last 16 matches. The run of draws was certainly frustrating to the fanbase, and Cincinnati should have closed out a handful of those matches.
But FC Cincinnati’s refusal to lose has kept it around the playoff line for months, and Saturday’s win, coupled with its 6-0 demolition of San Jose two weekends ago, has FCC three points clear of seventh-place Inter Miami with three league matches remaining. The Fighting Garys are level on points with fifth-place Orlando, who would win the first tiebreaker (wins) if the season ended today. Orlando has two more wins (13-11) than Cincinnati.
Hell Is Real rival Columbus has endured a September to forget, notching three draws and losing a critical match in Miami. On Sunday night, the Crew conceded a 95th minute equalizer to gift visiting Portland a 1-1 draw, pushing Columbus down to eighth place. While FC Cincinnati is behind Miami in wins (12-11), it has two more victories than the Crew.
Following tonight’s friendly, FC Cincinnati have this weekend off before three matches to close out the regular season. First up is another trek out west take on Seattle (39 points, 10th in West) on Tuesday. The Sounders are four points out of the final playoff spot in the West.
The Orange and Blue will get just three days off before returning to TQL Stadium for their final regular season home match vs. Chicago (35 points, 12th in East), who were just eliminated from the postseason over the weekend. An October 9 foray at league-worst D.C. United (27 points, 14th in East) closes out the regular season.
Depending on the results against Seattle and Chicago, as well as the outcome of the other teams in the playoff chase, FC Cincinnati could be fighting for a home playoff match against D.C. United—or scrambling to secure its first-ever playoff berth.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.