Last night at TQL Stadium, the home side thoroughly dominated an overmatched opponent, providing the locals with a night of good tidings. It was a welcome break from the recent parade of downtrodden Cincinnati sports news, notably the Reds’ playoff hopes sinking by the day, the team’s front office nerd purge, and the Bengals flopping over the weekend in Chicago. Shout out to UC football for continuing to carry the city’s flag.
In any case, it was refreshing to see the TQL Stadium hosts take care of business in front of a delighted crowd of 22,515. By this point, you’ve surely sensed the sarcasm and know, at minimum, I’m not referring to FC Cincinnati. However, if you didn’t see the U.S. women’s national team’s 8-0 throttling of Paraguay, you missed out on the Rose Lavelle Show. The Cincinnati native tallied a goal and three assists … in the first 15 minutes of the match!
Anyway, back to FC Cincinnati, which encountered a tough two-match week following its first victory at TQL Stadium on September 11, traveling south to face red-hot Atlanta a week ago and then taking on perennial East power New York City FC three days later back in Cincinnati.
I was wrong about Jaap Stam’s rotation strategy for the mid-week contest vs. Atlanta, believing that Cincinnati’s head coach wouldn’t favor wholesale changes to his typical starting XI. Instead he shuffled his cards, handing forward Brandon Vazquez and winger/defender Zico Bailey their first starts of the season, in addition to starting defender/winger Edgar Castillo (who usually either starts or doesn’t play at all), midfielder Florian Valot (mainly a reserve since coming over from New York Red Bulls), and Allan Cruz (who has started 14 games in 2021 but didn’t play in the victory over Toronto). Rare rests were doled out for Lucho Acosta, Alvaro Barreal, Geoff Cameron, and Yuya Kubo, who rank second, fourth, sixth, and third, respectively, in FCC minutes played this season.
The rotation and the formation, a defensive 3-5-2, suggested Stam had his fingers crossed for a draw. Given those two facts, realistic fans of the Orange and Blue would have known that carrying over the positives from the Toronto victory would be difficult, especially factoring Atlanta’s form (winners of five of six). The end result, a 4-0 Atlanta hammering of FC Cincinnati, was rather predictable from the outset. Luiz Araujo opened the scoring five minutes into the game. Former league MVP Josef Martinez scored just before the half and sealed the result not long after the second 45 minutes began. Atlanta finished with nine shots on target to FCC’s three in a match that was never in doubt.
On Saturday night against NYCFC, the typical starters were restored and FC Cincinnati started fast, with Brenner doing what he does best: being a fox in the box and taking advantage of the misfortune of others, whether those errors are self-inflicted or the result of timely ball pressure from the young Brazilian striker. In the fifth minute, he pounced on a failed clearance to supply the hosts with a rare early advantage. Cincinnati bunkered in far too easily, however, and conceded possession to the talented NYCFC side that would eventually equalize in the 37th minute through Keaton Parks.
The second half was a complete quagmire and culminated with FC Cincinnati completely losing its composure. FCC thought they pulled ahead in the 54th minute off a lovely interchange between Acosta and Barreal, with the former sending the latter free along the left flank with a beautiful curling pass that traveled half of the pitch. Barreal’s strong shot was saved by NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, but the rebound fell to Brenner, who calmly dodged Johnson and fired into the back of the net for what everyone thought was his second brace of the season. Barreal was ruled just offside in the buildup, though, negating the goal.
NYCFC pulled ahead in the 60th minute via Valentin Castellanos’s penalty conversion. Castellanos flopped—err, drew—the foul in the FCC box on Cameron. The staggering part of the whole sequence was that match official Ted Unkel failed to take even a peek at video review to confirm his decision. A clearly frustrated FC Cincinnati—which nearly drew level on Vazquez’s header from a free kick (a play he absolutely needs to score on) and also when Brenner’s close-range shot hit the post—had a pair of players sent off in the final 10 minutes. Barreal, already playing on a yellow card, picked up a straight red card in the 85th minute for a poor challenge. Isaac Atanga reduced the hosts to nine men after his red card challenge completely cleaned out Maxi Moralez right before the final whistle and nearly sparked a brawl between the two teams.
On the whole, the match was another missed opportunity for FC Cincinnati (three shots on goal), which held its own vs. the visitors (four shots on goal), who have been in playoff position essentially from the jump in 2021 and secured third place in the East with their 11th triumph of 2021. FCC (20 points, 13th in East) inched closer to the East basement with its second straight loss, as last-place Toronto stunned Nashville to move within two points of Cincinnati.
The Orange and Blue, save those who played in a “reserve” match Sunday morning, will net a full week of rest before taking on a current East playoff team for the third successive contest. A road match at D.C. United (34 points, 8th in the East) awaits on Saturday night, and the game could be the first start for defender Tyler Blackett, a veteran of England’s second division who came on as a substitute vs. NYCFC for his FC Cincinnati debut, as well as the first appearance of young midfielder Kyle Scott.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.