FC Cincinnati’s Playoff Advancement Marred by Matt Miazga’s Suspension

FCC can now rest up for two and a half weeks and figure out how to win an MLS Cup quarterfinal match without their star center back.

For the second year running, FC Cincinnati ended New York Red Bulls’ season on their home turf. And the sequel bested the original. In 2022, Brandon Vazquez’s 86th-minute winner vaulted the Orange & Blue into the Eastern Conference semifinals. Saturday evening’s follow-up merited a bit more spectacle. After a 1-1 regulation draw, Cincinnati sweated out a 10-round penalty kick shootout to win 1-1 (8-7), skirting a winner-take-all Game 3.

FC Cincinnati now has three weeks off before its one-game East semifinal tilt against either the Philadelphia Union or New England Revolution. Unfortunately, postseason progression came at a cost: the suspension of MLS Defender of the Year finalist Matt Miazga for yellow card accumulation. [Update: FCC will face Philadelphia on November 25.]

After picking up a yellow card in FCC’s 3-0 decision over New York in Game 1, Miazga received a pair of cautions in Game 2: one for dissent after Lucho Acosta’s game-winning Olimpico goal was (correctly) disallowed and the second for blowing kisses and displaying hand hearts to the Red Bulls crowd following his converted penalty. Miazga, who grew up a short drive from that New Jersey facility, is a former Red Bulls academy player who played three seasons with the senior team. Depending on your interpretation of his celebration, he blatantly taunted the Red Bulls supporters’ section or displayed genuine appreciation for the fans of his hometown club.

Three yellows equals a suspension in postseason play, so when FC Cincinnati returns to the pitch on November 25 to advance to the franchise’s first-ever East Finals, the Garys will do so sans their vocal leader. Head coach Pat Noonan noted the possibility of an appeal post-match but also said the club is planning to play without Miazga, who is also under league investigation for an alleged post-match confrontation with the match officials.

No stranger to toeing the line between indispensable back line enforcer and garrulous provocateur, Miazga routinely tests referees’ patience. What is not up for debate is his overwhelmingly positive impact on FCC’s defense. In early September, Queen City Press observed that FC Cincinnati had allowed 1.83 goals per match and was just 2-2-2 (win-loss-draw) sans Miazga in 2023. With him on the pitch, FCC was 15-1-4 and yielded just 0.9 goals per match.

The suspension’s timing couldn’t be worse. Obviously, Miazga will be absent for the biggest match in franchise history. Further, FCC’s center back depth is the worst it’s been all season. Nick Hagglund recently underwent season-ending surgery to fix a hamstring injury suffered in training. Though Hagglund had ceded his starting spot to Ian Murphy as the regular season ended, his ample playoff experience and prowess in the air would have offered much more reassurance with Miazga unavailable.

Alvas Powell, the typical right back who has deputized at center back in 2023, has missed both playoff contests through injury. He’s listed as “day-to-day” this week. Ray Gaddis is healthy and has played four games at right center back this season.

FC Cincinnati has three weeks off due to the November 17-19 weekend falling during a FIFA international window. Typically I’d note the drawbacks of such a long layoff, but it’s evident the Orange and Blue could use a reset after a pair of grueling matches opposite the notoriously physical Red Bulls.

Starting in place of Aaron Boupendza at striker for the second straight match, Dominique Badji had to be withdrawn after 34 minutes. The ubiquitous Obinna Nwobodo, who had been taken off just four times prior to the 80th minute in league matches this season, picked up a knock and was subbed off in the 69th minute. Santiago Arias played the full match after missing nearly a month through injury. Lucho Acosta could use the break to rest his ailing foot/heel.

Again, recovery time from the bumps and bruises acquired from playing the Red Bulls twice in seven days is needed. Saturday night contained 18 won tackles, 34 tackles, and six yellow cards. The contest merited at least three or four more cautions, but since match referee Victor Rivas refused to dish out yellow cards in the first half, players on both sides took advantage of substitute teacher-esque discipline.

“How the officials are able to manage that is challenging, and top players that have been in these moments before and understand how to navigate a game like that don’t let it affect their play,” Noonan told the media post-match. “And a majority of our guys, I thought, handled the type of game that we saw in a good way.”

New York went ahead just prior to halftime when Tom Barlow pounced on a twice-deflected ball that the visitors couldn’t properly clear. Boupendza equalized in the 75th minute, capitalizing on his third golden scoring chance of the half. A poor Red Bulls free kick deflected off of Vazquez, springing a counterattack with Vazquez, Boupendza, and Acosta running at the Red Bulls. Acosta’s crossover dribble left a defender sprawling and freed the captain to summon a lovely weighted pass to Boupendza, who powerslid the ball off the right post and in.

The two sides exchanged a handful of golden chances to triumph in regulation, notably Acosta’s disallowed corner-kick score in the final seconds. Sergio Santos was ruled to have impeded Red Bulls goalkeeper Carlos Coronel, who frankly sold the foul well. The goal likely would have been chalked off for the ball hitting Santos’ arm as it found paydirt, though.

With no extra time period permitted in the first round of the playoffs, the two sides proceeded directly to best-of-five penalty kicks. Acosta and Kubo scored, but Coronel saved Arias’ tame attempt. Even after Vazquez and Barreal slotted their spot kicks home, John Tolkin, a Jersey boy and Red Bulls academy player like Miazga, could have forced a decisive Game 3 with a well-placed swing of his boot. Instead, he struck the right post, granting the visitors new life and pushing penalties into a sudden death scenario.

Both sides converted their next three kicks, with Miazga, Boupendza, and Santos (by the skin of his teeth) coming up clutch. Yerson Mosquera’s placid strike was saved, but Serge Ngoma’s subsequent penalty landed in the stands. The conclusion came in the 10th round. Junior Moreno calmly converted, and then Roman Celentano, who hadn’t come close to saving New York’s previous nine attempts, blocked Andrés Reyes’ attempt.

The stop sealed FC Cincinnati’s third successive elimination victory at Red Bull Arena, following last year’s postseason win and a round of 16 U.S. Open Cup triumph this summer (also via penalties). FC Cincinnati will now sit back, rest their legs, and prepare for a crucial match without one of the league’s top center backs.

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

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