FC Cincinnati Is the Best Team in MLS

FCC has more wins (10) in its past 11 games at TQL Stadium than it did in its previous 57 home matches and is moving on in the U.S. Open Cup.
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Three matches. Seven days. Nine points earned. Not a bad week for FC Cincinnati, Major League’s Soccer’s best team.

That’s such a strange sentence to utter about this franchise, but I’m just going by the facts. Thanks to a pair of league wins last week over Montreal and Columbus, FC Cincinnati sits alone atop the Supporters’ Shield standings with 30 points from 13 league matches, averaging a gaudy 2.3 points per match. Last season, Shield-winning Los Angeles FC averaged just shy of two points per match.

To cap off its wild week, Cincinnati went on the road and barely outlasted New York Red Bulls in a Round of 16 U.S Open Cup match Tuesday evening. The Garys prevailed 5-3 in penalty kicks after the two sides couldn’t be separated after 110 minutes of regulation and 33 minutes of extra time.

Let’s recap that week that was for FC Cincinnati:

Perfect penalty kicks overshadow rough offensive showing vs. Red Bulls

Last night elicited ample rotation from Saturday’s match vs. Columbus, with skipper Pat Noonan opting for seven changes to the starting XI. The big omissions were Alvaro Barreal, Roman Celentano, Matt Miazga, Junior Moreno, and Brandon Vazquez. With Brenner and Sergio Santos unavailable through injury and Dominique Badji starting on the bench, Noonan opted to start five midfielders and zero strikers. Typical starters Lucho Acosta and Obinna Nwobodo were joined by Marco Angulo, Malik Pinto, and Yuya Kubo.

An uninteresting first half showing from both teams sprung to life in the 42nd minute, with FC Cincinnati’s first transition attack resulting in a goal from Kubo. After Santi Arias pushed the ball deep into the Red Bulls’ attacking half, a nifty interchange among Acosta, Angulo, and Kubo resulted in the score.

The visitors mustered literally nothing in attack after that. In 121 minutes of open play, Cincinnati managed just one shot on goal, completed barely 60 percent of its passes and spent much of the second half and almost the entirety of extra time under siege. A resolute defensive showing was spoiled when Dante Vanzeir—who was suspended for six games earlier in the season for using racist language during a game—tallied the equalizer in the 92nd minute.

Following a pair of scoreless extra time periods, the two sides proceeded to penalty kicks. FC Cincinnati went a perfect 5-for-5, with Acosta, Moreno, Badji, Yerson Mosquera, and Barreal (in that order) all converting from the spot. The lone Red Bull to miss was Vanzeir. Karma, and whatnot.

The match lacked the verve and atmosphere of New York’s 3-2 comeback victory in extra time over FC Cincinnati in the 2017 Open Cup semifinals, but the win was nonetheless a sweet one for the Orange and Blue. FCC will host either Columbus or second-division side Pittsburgh on June 6/7 in the quarterfinal round. The triumph came at a price, though, with added minutes for many key contributors ahead of an MLS league match Saturday night at altitude in Colorado. Acosta, for example, went the distance after logging 85 minutes vs. Columbus and 95 minutes against Montreal.

TQL Stadium is becoming Hell for opponents

Saturday’s first 2023 edition of Hell Is Real started off on a nostalgic note, with FC Cincinnati trotting out former striker Djiby Fall, who scored the match-winning goal in FCC’s Open Cup victory over Columbus in 2017, pre-match. A sellout crowd of 25,513 pushed FCC to a 3-2 victory.

Make that eight wins in eight home matches for FC Cincinnati, which recovered after fumbling a 2-0 first-half advantage. Acosta was magnanimous, scoring twice and toying with Crew defenders throughout the night.

But Columbus, the league’s second-highest scoring team entering Saturday, displayed its quality with two unanswered scores and by emphatically controlling the match after going down 2-0. Entering Saturday’s slate of matches, no MLS team had controlled the ball more than Columbus. And while employing a counter-attacking style suits FC Cincinnati (bottom third in the league in possession) perfectly fine, the Crew were eminently dangerous following their first goal in the 40th minute.

If desired, the match could be boiled down to the two goalkeepers. Columbus’ Patrick Schulte was complicit in the match-winning goal in the 67th minute. Acosta caught him lingering in possession. Vazquez then fed Kubo, who one-touched the ball on a platter for Moreno. On the flip side, Celentano preserved the three points with a flying save in the 93rd minute, cuing the celebrations and an entertaining post-match team picture that featured Barreal rocking one of Celentano’s shirts.

This was a match in which FC Cincinnati desperately could have used Brenner and/or Santos. Badji, FCC’s fourth striker, played a helluva match—and his hustle assist to Acosta for the first goal will go down in Hell Is Real lore—but his race was run after 66 minutes. Brenner’s ability to drop into possession and add another creative outlet next to Acosta would have relieved some defensive suffering, and Santos’ pace could have stretched a shaky Columbus back line that was forced to push high in search of a tying goal.

TQL Stadium has quickly become a fortress for FC Cincinnati, which now has more triumphs (10) in its past 11 home tilts than it did in its previous 57 (nine).

Cruise control against Montreal

FC Cincinnati began its three-match, seven-day stretch with a rare comfortable victory, easing past visiting Montreal 3-0 on May 17. A second-minute own goal by Montreal and 26th-minute superb solo effort by Acosta put the hosts up 2-0 after 26 minutes.

Montreal was no gimme, either, having won six successive contests. No matter for Cincinnati, which won by multiple goals for the first time in 2023.

FC Cincinnati’s frantic conclusion to May continues Saturday at Colorado—just three points off the bottom of the Western Conference—before the last of its five matches in 15 days comes on May 31 at New York City FC.

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

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