Another week, another late winning goal on the road for suddenly formidable FC Cincinnati. After a 93rd-minute goal ensured its third straight victory at Minnesota on May 7, Lucho Acosta pounced on a Chicago Fire mistake in the 85th minute last Saturday to deliver FC Cincinnati a 2-1 triumph and the franchise’s first-ever four-game MLS winning streak.
Up is down, white is black, and right is left for those of us who’ve watched hours upon hours of poor soccer since the Orange and Blue’s entry into Major League Soccer. Witnessing this winning streak is tantamount to an out-of-body experience.
FC Cincinnati has already equaled their most wins in a season and is one point behind its 2021 total, despite playing just 35 percent of its schedule. It’s averaging nearly a full point per game better than 2021, too.
After three successive last-place finishes in MLS, FCC is one (one!) point out of first (first!) place in the East. “It’s a mentality and they’re figuring out how to do this as a group with a lot of different players contributing to us being able to win some games,” said first-year head coach Pat Noonan after the win in Chicago. “In this stretch, it’s been necessary for us to understand how to defend longer stretches when our quality with the ball isn’t there. And we figured out in a lot of ways how to do that, to not allow teams to score goals, and we found ways to convert on limited chances.”
Saturday night in Chicago was far from FC Cincinnati’s best performance of the season. Facing the East’s last-place outfit—which had lost three straight, was winless in its past six matches, and was the joint-lowest goal scoring team in the league—the visitors struggled.
Despite its offensive ineptitude, Chicago had allowed just 11 goals in 10 matches. FCC couldn’t crack the Fire’s defensive shape, completing a lousy 58 percent of its attacking half passes and 56 percent of its final third passes. FC Cincinnati’s expected goal output (0.8) was its lowest of the season, and it registered only 39 percent possession, its fourth-lowest total on the season. (Fun fact: In the four matches when it’s had less than 40 percent possession, FC Cincinnati has three wins and one draw.)
“Better lucky than good” certainly applied in Chicago, where FCC tallied its first score via a brutal 33rd minute own goal as Chicago’s Rafael Czichos headed the ball into his own net. The second goal was another gift from the hosts. This time, 18-year-old Chicago goalkeeper Gaga Slonina, under pressure from Brandon Vazquez, slotted a wrong-footed pass to Acosta in the Fire penalty box. Acosta took his time, okey-doked a Chicago defender, and pounded the game-winner into the corner of the net.
Noonan was proud of his group but rightly noted that eventually more well-rounded showings will be needed on the road. “That’s the character of the group right now, is understanding how to win when things aren’t going our way,” he said. “The challenge moving forward is how to be better with the ball so that it doesn’t have to look like this every time you win a game on the road.”
Next up is a rematch up of sorts Saturday evening at TQL Stadium vs. New England Revolution (11th in East; 12 points from 11 games), who are winless in league road matches this season. The Revolution slaughtered FC Cincinnati 5-1 in a Round of 32 U.S. Open Cup match on May 11. FCC fielded what amounted to a JV team, with only three regulars starting. Issac Atanga, Zico Bailey, Arquimides Ordonez, Harrison Robledo, and Kenneth Vermeer, all out of the regular rotation, started; New England’s starting XI included seven players with at least five MLS contests in 2022.
Noonan’s priority was clear: Rest his starters and focus on the MLS slate. A time to take the U.S. Open more seriously will come in future seasons when the squad possesses improved depth. That strategy paid off for Noonan and his team in Chicago. We’ll see how New England handles FC Cincinnati’s first-choice lineup on Saturday night.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.