FC Cincinnati Season in Review: Defying Expectations

The team has a strong lineup core and an excellent GM/head coach combo, so bright days are ahead at TQL Stadium and beyond.
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Club records for points and goals scored. A pair of All-Stars. The league leader in assists. A first-ever playoff appearance and win. Set in isolation, FC Cincinnati’s 2022 season was wildly successful. But when put in the context of the misery of 2019 through 2021, which featured three straight league-worst finishes and multiple MLS records set for futility, this season is damn near cause for a parade and statues outside TQL Stadium.

The Orange and Blue presented a proper account of themselves in their Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup against the top-seeded Philadelphia Union. But their best wasn’t enough to avoid being shut out for the first time in three months against the league’s top defense and goalkeeper. The 1-0 defeat placed a bow on 2022’s on-field action, but the work will soon resume for the club’s decision-makers for next season and beyond.

Here are superlatives for 2022 and storylines to eye over the offseason:

Most entertaining match: FC Cincinnati 4, New York City FC 4 on June 29

The good: FCC raced out to a 3-0 lead after 30 minutes, and club record signing Brenner tallied the franchise’s first MLS hat trick. The bad: NYCFC scored three times in eight minutes just before halftime, ensuring the hosts became the first side in league history to blow a 3-0 advantage before intermission. Brenner had two more goals ruled out in this end-to-end thriller, which was an indication of both FC Cincinnati’s scoring prowess and its problematic defense.

Most “Is the whole team hung over?” match: Chicago 3, FC Cincinnati 2 on October 1

The season-opening 5-0 pasting by Austin was a brutal way to begin the season, and yielding a 96th-minute winner to Columbus at TQL Stadium on August 27 was a real gut punch. But the seemingly indifferent defensive effort against an already-eliminated Chicago with playoff positioning on the line was confounding. FCC blew a handful of goal-line chances in the first half and paid for its lack of clinical finishing in the second, as Chicago notched a trio of goals in 19 minutes. Fortunate results in other matches featuring would-be playoff squads in the days following the Chicago debacle lessened the sting of this showing, but the egg-laying was a real wake-up call to FC Cincinnati.

Most valuable player: Luciano Acosta

A strong argument could be made here for Brandon Vazquez, an 18-goal scorer who announced himself as a bonafide star. Despite more than tripling his previous season-high in minutes, Vazquez stayed mostly consistent throughout the 34-match league slate, scoring clutch goal after clutch—including the game-winner in the playoff opener against New York Red Bulls.

Still, the club captain is the choice. Acosta paced MLS in assists (19), and his 93 passes that directly led to a shot were second-best in MLS. Acosta thrived in first-year head coach Pat Noonan’s 3-5-2 setup and was a creative force operating behind Brenner and Vazquez and playing further up the field than in 2021, when he was compelled to initiate offense deeper into the midfield. Under team control through 2024, FCC may approach the 28-year-old about a contract extension this winter.

Most disappointing player: Tyler Blackett

Signed in August 2021, Blackett was supposed to become a pillar in FC Cincinnati’s defense as a physical, 6-foot-2 center back with experience playing in England’s second division. As of now, the former regime acquired a player past his prime and desperately short on pace, which is why Blackett was firmly behind Nick Hagglund, Geoff Cameron, and rookie Ian Murphy in the center back pecking order—even before prized signing Matt Miazga showed up in early August. Blackett’s last MLS appearance came on August 13, and his last start was July 30.

Which rotation players won’t be back?

Midfielder Allan Cruz, one of two remaining players left from the 2019 team (Hagglund is the other), is out of contract and confirmed that his time in Cincinnati is over. The following players are either out of contract or have an option for 2023 that FC Cincinnati can pick up: Cameron, Dominique Badji, Ronald Matarrita, Junior Moreno, and Alvas Powell.

Cameron, who turned 37 in July—old for a soccer player and ancient for a center back—likely won’t be back. I could see everyone else returning. Moreno is a borderline lock after playing in 27 matches. If Sergio Santos isn’t back, Badji makes sense as a third striker. Matarrita, if healthy, is a hand-in-glove fit as a left wingback in Noonan’s 3-5-2 formation, but if the coaching staff and front office see Alvaro Barreal as a viable option in that role, the young Argentine would be a cheaper alternative.

Powell’s technical shortcomings make him an offensive liability in the attacking third, but his pace remains a major weapon. Look for General Manager Chris Albright to try to upgrade right back before committing to Powell as a starter.

Is an encore in store for the Brenner-Vazquez partnership?

The two became the first MLS teammates to score at least 18 goals each in a season, and their complementary strengths as forwards—Vazquez as a traditional hold-up No. 9, Brenner as a second striker who can assist Acosta with link-up play—were a nightmare for defenses.

FC Cincinnati bought Brenner prior to the 2021 season for a reported $13 million, however, to eventually profit from the 22-year-old’s theoretical sale to a European side. His start to 2022 was rough, since he was unavailable for the first four matches through a combination of green card issues and a back injury. Then came a steady stream of sub appearances that presumably led to Brenner reportedly requesting a transfer. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and Brenner thrived, becoming just the first player since 2018 with three hat tricks in a single season.

Noonan stated this week that he expects Brenner to return in 2023, and unless the Brazilian feels ready for greener pastures and asks for a transfer, I believe he’ll be back. FCC’s ownership will want to recoup more than what they shelled out for Brenner, and another season of rampant scoring might do the trick.

As for Vazquez, rumors of a possible move to Liga MX were quashed when he inked an extension in late August that put him under team control through 2026. The 24-year-old could eventually look to prove himself in a tougher league abroad.

What else is there to know?

A two-day trade window opens on November 7. The 2022 Expansion Draft is slated for November 11, and 2023 newcomer St. Louis can select up to five players. FC Cincinnati can protect up to 12 players from its senior and supplemental rosters and isn’t in line to lose anyone they’ll dearly miss.

November 14 is the deadline for clubs to exercise player options for 2023, with free agency opening two days later. The 2023 SuperDraft is on December 21. Albright & Co. killed the 2022 edition, selecting goalkeeper Roman Celentano with the second overall pick and Murphy, who made 16 starts and appeared in 26 matches as a rookie, with the No. 14 selection.

FC Cincinnati fans can look to the future and smile. Noonan and Albright appear to be home run hires. With Acosta, Brenner, Celentano, Miazga, Vazquez, and midfielder Obinna Nwobodo, the club boasts a tremendous spine to build around in the coming seasons. Ownership has some of the deepest pockets in MLS. Now that FCC has established competence at all levels of its franchise, it can eye an ascent into the league’s elite.

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

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