FC Cincinnati Keeps Its Cool to Win the Franchise’s Playoff Debut

FCC was the only road team to win an MLS playoff game this past week. Can the run continue Thursday in Philadelphia?

In the dying embers of second-half stoppage time, Yuya Kubo delivered a stinging tackle that summed up FC Cincinnati’s 2022 resolve. In the 112th minute, the New York Red Bulls stormed forward from their defensive end and FC Cincinnati were in danger of being at a numbers disadvantage if the Red Bulls could summon one line-clearing pass. Kubo, a converted midfielder who has become one of the club’s top tacklers, wasn’t about to let that shit happen.

Originally brought in as a Designated Player in January 2020 as an attacking winger, Kubo has spent the past two seasons as a central midfielder. The veteran of Champions League and Europa League matches has spent 2022 largely on the bench, making only 14 league starts.

Riding pine hasn’t affected Kubo all season—he’s been so consistently good off the bench that a proper argument could be raised that he should be starting over Junior Moreno. On Saturday, with one final winning defensive play required, Kubo’s tackle-plus-foul-won snuffed out the final hope of a last-second Red Bulls winner. The result was No. 5 seed FC Cincinnati 2, No. 4 seed New York Red Bulls 1.

Pinch yourself, FC Cincinnati supporters: Your club won its first-ever playoff match. Next up are the top-seeded Philadelphia Union on Thursday evening. “We’re a team to be scared of,” said striker Brandon Vazquez, author of the game-winning goal, per mlssoccer.com. “We’ve got an incredible team, and I could see us winning it all.”

With FCC trailing 1-0 in the 67th minute, rookie head coach Pat Noonan threw on Kubo and Sergio Santos for Moreno and Brenner. Subbing out Brenner, the MLS Player of the Month for September/October, was a bold yet calculated move. The star striker had yet to find his footing in the match, and Santos’ pure pace is ideal for attacking tired defenses. Still, it’s difficult to remove a striker with nine goals over his past six matches.

The Orange and Blue equalized in the 72nd minute, capitalizing on a pair of Red Bull mistakes. First, Lucho Acosta was brought down around 30 yards away from goal. That sequence alone would have given FC Cincinnati a chance to bring in its tall center backs for a dangerous set piece. Instead, Acosta took the free kick quickly, firing the ball to Alvaro Barreal in the box. A centering pass was deflected back out to Barreal, who was brought down by Andres Reyes for a penalty.

With the weight of a franchise on his shoulders, Acosta, the club captain, coolly buried the spot kick to level the proceedings. Then, in the 86th minute, Santos, brought in from Philadelphia in July, validated his acquisition in one impressive sequence. A sloppy Red Bulls throw-in allowed midfielder Obinna Nwobodo—nothing short of outstanding on Saturday—to fling the ball up the left flank. Santos flipped on the NOS, sped past the Red Bull defender and delivered a sumptuous centering ball to Vazquez in the box. Vazquez didn’t flinch, punching in the 86th-minute winner and sending FCC into the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The irony of Vazquez, a U.S. men’s national team snub, dusting Red Bull Aaron Long has to be mentioned. Long, who played below his standards in 2022 after returning from an Achilles injury, received the benefit of the doubt from USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter and not only played but continually started for the Americans over the summer. Vazquez, a consistent goal scorer from March through October, could do no worse than the floundering strikers employed by Berhalter throughout the past year and a half but hasn’t received that same generosity.

Saturday’s first half was as nondescript as playoff halves go. It didn’t take long for the action to heat up in the second 45 minutes, though, with the Red Bulls Lewis Morgan’s wonder goal leaving one nothing to do but look up an “applause” gif. Unfortunately for the hosts, he had to be substituted off immediately afterwards.

I hope FC Cincinnati and its fanbase took the weekend to celebrate, because Philadelphia is a club two levels above the Red Bulls—the Union owned the league’s top offense, defense, and scoring differential (plus-46!!!). FCC did play Philadelphia well in the regular season, however, squeaking out a 1-1 draw in June before dismantling the Union 3-1 in early August. Thursday’s victor will face the winner of No. 3 seed New York City FC vs No. 2 Montreal on October 30.

FC Cincinnati was the lone road team to prevail in eight MLS quarterfinal matches. Another massive road showing will be required on Thursday night against a juggernaut that will have a proper fan backing—the Red Bulls’ announced crowd of 17,113 was less than impressive.

Enjoy it, FCC fans. Your club is playing with house money from here on out.

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

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