Tonight, FC Cincinnati (20 points, 14th in East) welcomes Chicago (28 points, 12th in East) to cap its four-game homestand at TQL Stadium; FCC’s road match Saturday night at Inter Miami will be its first away foray since September 29. Tonight also represents Cincinnati’s best chance at garnering another victory in 2021, a prime opportunity to end a season-worst seven-game losing skid that was extended with a 1-0 setback to Orlando City last weekend—the team’s 12th time being shut out in 2021.
After tonight, the Orange and Blue take on four teams fighting to secure positions in the seven-team East playoff bracket—Nashville (second in East), Philadelphia (third), and Atlanta (fifth)—as well as one that remains mathematically alive for the postseason but needs to rip off a season-ending winning streak (Miami, 11th). Chicago, Toronto (25 points), and FC Cincinnati are the three East squads already eliminated from playoff consideration.
FC Cincinnati still has an outside chance to avoid the embarrassing achievement of finishing with the fewest points in Major League Soccer three seasons in a row. No MLS team has ever done this. Fortunately for FCC, it’s already clear of 2013 D.C. United’s ignominious mark of fewest points (16) in a 34-game schedule.
Ironically enough, it was Chicago who came the closest to matching FC Cincinnati’s three-season stretch of anguish. The Fire were dead last in MLS in points in 2015 (30) and 2016 (31) and not much better in 2014 (36 points), though four other sides were worse. The Fire finally burned bright in 2017, placing third in the East with 55 points, their last trip to the playoffs.
Chicago’s current iteration enters the Queen City on a decent run of form, capturing five points in its past five matches, including netting a draw vs. New England, the Supporters Shield shoo-ins, over the weekend. FC Cincinnati is coming off the aforementioned defeat to Orlando City, a frustrating setback not because Cincinnati could claim to have been the clearly better side but because the officiating crew inserted itself into the match.
For the game, FCC interim head coach Tyrone Marshall again rotated his squad. Midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo made his first start since May 1. With Cincinnati’s top two left backs unavailable—Ronald Matarrita rested after playing in all three of Costa Rica’s matches over the international break, and backup Edgar Castillo was suspended for yellow card accumulation—center back Nick Hagglund, who has often deputized at right back, started at left back. With Yuya Kubo and Gustavo Vallecilla out with injuries, Marshall shifted away from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation into a 3-4-2-1 formation, which inserted Isaac Atanga back into the starting XI. Another roster note was midfielder Kyle Scott, a former Chelsea youth player, making his debut in the second half.
The final statistics favored Orlando, which had more shots (18-9) and shots on target (5-3) and barely ceded the possession edge to the hosts (53 percent to 47 percent). The lone goal of the match was a long-range effort by Junior Urso that found the back of the net in the 13th minute. The score was a well-struck ball by Urso, but Mokotjo didn’t even attempt to close him down and FCC goalkeeper Przemysław Tytoń should probably have done better, though he was shielded by multiple bodies and didn’t have much time to react to the strike.
The real star of the show, however, was match referee Marcos DeOliveira, who frankly was out of his depth. A strange comment for a veteran MLS official perhaps, but there were multiple contributing factors to his poor night at the office. For one, DeOliveira was overly chatty and distracted following fouls, feeling the need to run up to the offending player and explain seemingly every whistle he blew. He also failed to dole out obvious yellow cards to both sides, including letting Lucho Acosta off the hook for a dangerous, retaliatory foul right in front of him in the first half.
The worst offences came in the second half, though. DeOliveira stopped a golden FC Cincinnati counterattack in the 66th minute, choosing to halt play after Alvaro Barreal incurred a lower body foul. Had he let play continue, FCC would have had a 3-on-2 break on the precipice of the Orlando 18-yard-box, with perhaps its most gifted passer, Haris Medunjanin, possessing the ball at his feet and Brenner and Acosta to his left and right, respectively.
In the 84th minute, it was Orlando’s turn to get screwed. Tesho Akindele unleashed a screamer from around 30 yards out that slammed into the crossbar and appeared to cross the goal plane when the ball ricocheted downward. Yet there was no stoppage in play to even reconsider the potential goal, even with replays showing that such a stoppage was, at minimum, required.
The capper to DeOliveira’s comedy of errors was failing to award a penalty kick to FC Cincinnati in the 91st minute after Brandon Vazquez was smacked in the face and taken down in the Orlando penalty box. DeOliveira went over to the monitor himself to review the play and still remain unconvinced, waving off a potential penalty. Major League Soccer’s official Video Review Twitter account had the gall postgame to tweet out a borderline-insulting non-explanation. On Monday, the Professional Referee Organization issued a slightly less ludicrous explanation that Hagglund initiated contact with the offending Orlando player, Roridgo Schlegel, who then fell into Vazquez. That explanation failed to account for the fact that while Hagglund may have slightly tumbled into Schlegel, his fall did not compel Schlegel to whack Vazquez in the face with his forearm.
And thus FC Cincinnati’s seventh straight loss was one of its hardest to swallow of 2021. Bad teams both find ways to lose and are seemingly more prone to poor fortune. Cincinnati’s best chance at reversing those trends in 2021—at least for one game—comes tonight.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.