FC Cincinnati Rises From Purgatory to Playoffs

This season’s amazing turnaround sees FCC playing the New York Red Bulls Saturday in the franchise’s first MLS playoff match.
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In a span of 11 months, FC Cincinnati’s reputation has been transformed. From league laughing stock to legitimate title contender. From a distorted roster to boasting one of the strongest present and future spines in MLS. From a merry-go-round of head coaches and outmatched general managers to one of the strongest coach/GM partnerships in the league.

FC Cincinnati clinched its first MLS playoff appearance by beating D.C. United on October 9.

Photograph courtesy FC Cincinnati

Following three successive Wooden Spoons to begin its MLS odyssey—last place finishes marked by setting league records for offensive and defensive incompetence along the way—FC Cincinnati qualified for its first-ever postseason with a 5-2 victory at D.C. United on Sunday. The fifth-seeded Orange and Blue face the fourth-seeded New York Red Bulls Saturday at noon in Harrison, New Jersey.

“I feel like the organization’s in a great place,” said starting center back and Cincinnati native Nick Hagglund after the match. “I’ve been here for four seasons now, and I’ve gone through the ringer in terms of what’s happened over the first three years.” Brenner, named MLS Player of the Week after notching a hat trick and an assist, summed up the joyful postgame mood well: “Nobody’s going to sleep.”

Entering Decision Day on Sunday, FC Cincinnati was set to advance to the postseason with a win or draw; there was even a scenario in which they could have qualified with a loss. Instead, the visitors left zero doubt, leading 2-0 after eight minutes and 4-1 at halftime. Up against the league’s worst defense, FCC’s peerless attacking trident of Brenner, Lucho Acosta, and Brandon Vazquez feasted.

Brenner posted his hat trick in just 37 minutes, with the third score an apt display of chemistry among the three as well as Brenner’s uncanny finishing ability. He’s the first MLS player since 2018 with three hat tricks in a season and the first player since Landon Donovan—the best player in league history—in 2007 to register multiple three-goal, one-assist games in a season. Brenner and Vazquez became the first teammates in league history to score 18 goals each in a single season, while Acosta led the league with 19 assists. The trio combined for 46 goals and 33 assists.

Again, the turnaround from where FC Cincinnati was around this time in 2021 is incredible. Ownership and the front office nailed the hire of Chris Albright as the new General Manager. He turned to Pat Noonan, a former Philadelphia Union confidante and the ideal man for this job, as head coach. Noonan then surrounded himself with a staff full of MLS experience, particularly with a MLS Cup-winning coach in Dom Kinnerar and with Kenny Arena, who had 15 years of experience coaching in MLS and with the U.S. men’s national team.

Acosta, Brenner, and Vazquez were all acquired by former GM Gerard Nijkamp. And while that’s noteworthy, Albright filled in the right pieces around the trio, and Noonan found the right tone with both his tactics and coaching style to extract the most out of this group.

Albright mixed unheralded acquisitions—including the signings of Dominique Badji, Ray Gaddis, Alec Kann, and Alvas Powell and the drafting of goalkeeper Roman Celentano—with well-timed, big-name moves (Matt Miazga and Obinna Nwobodo). Once FC Cincinnati became whole in the second half of the season, the team became damn hard to beat, evidenced by just two defeats over its final 14 league matches.

FCC failed to beat the Red Bulls this year, notching a pair of 1-1 draws. New York is known for its frenetic, constant pressure. Given Cincinnati’s defensive frailty—only two East clubs surrendered more goals—a high-scoring affair is Cincinnati’s most likely route to victory on Saturday. An inaugural postseason triumph would mean a date with top-seeded Philadelphia.

Saturday is uncharted territory for FC Cincinnati. Given the wonder created by the club in 2022, though, bet against them at your own risk.

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

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