FC Cincinnati’s Trophy Rewards a Devoted Fanbase

The fans stuck with FCC through the minor league years and three straight last-place finishes in MLS. The 2023 Supporters’ Shield is the club’s “thank you.”

Winning the Supporters’ Shield, bestowed upon the team with the highest points total over Major League Soccer’s eight-month marathon of a regular season, is an aptly named trophy and a just reward for FC Cincinnati’s ardent fanbase. An essential cog in the franchise’s ascension from United Soccer League expansion side to playing in MLS in less than four years, FCC fans have been damn consistent. A good many were literally jumping for joy with local boy Nick Hagglund early Sunday morning at the airport upon the team’s return from Toronto following a 3-2 victory that clinched the Shield.

As part of his letter released to the public following the win in Toronto, FCC majority owner Carl H. Lindner hit many of the same notes: “We have you to thank for helping get us there—you, our incredible fans. Those who have been with us as we laid the foundation, faced obstacles and setbacks, and finally hit our stride with an exceptional, unified team, as well as those who have joined us since we opened TQL Stadium and made it our fortress. Now together, we will celebrate the 2023 Supporters’ Shield on Wednesday night at the conclusion of our match versus New York Red Bulls.”

During the USL days, FC Cincinnati’s devotees grabbed the attention of American soccer consumers and MLS Commissioner Don Garber, smashing league attendance records and slaying MLS teams in front of strident sellout Nippert Stadium during its U.S. Open Cup run in 2017. Garber later admitted he knew FCC would eventually be an MLS franchise after witnessing its Open Cup win over the Chicago Fire via penalty kicks—or the “Mitch Says No” match—unfolded before a palpitating crowd of 32,000-plus and a national audience on ESPN.

Again, the fanbase has shown up through thick and thin. FCC suffered through its third successive last-place finish in 2021 and still finished fourth out of 27 clubs in attendance. In 2023, FC Cincinnati is fifth in average attendance (25,347, just shy of filling 26,000-seat TQL Stadium to capacity each match) and is second among teams with soccer-specific stadiums. Cincinnati has always supported a winner, which has only amped up the Orange and Blue’s base of partisans.

The victory over Toronto set off a party in the visiting locker room at BMO Field before FC Cincinnati came home to commemorate the night with its diehards. Of all the heart-warming images and pictures to emerge, it was Lucho Acosta—a proud Argentinian who played for D.C. United for four seasons—conducting a post-match interview partially in English to convey his appreciation for FCC and its supporters that struck me.

It’s worth reiterating what a turnaround the past two seasons have been, because literally going worst to first is a rare feat:

  • 24 points in 2019.
  • 16 points in the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season.
  • 20 points in a rock bottom 2021 season to clinch a third consecutive Wooden Spoon, designating the worst record in MLS.
  • Progress in 2022 with 49 points and a playoff victory.

This season has wrought 65 points in 31 league matches so far. The MLS record for most season points is still within reach, if FCC can win its final three matches. General Manager Chris Albright and head coach Pat Noonan, along with their respective staffs, have conjured a miracle turnaround. Now FC Cincinnati can enjoy homefield advantage throughout the postseason, starting with hosting the first match—and, if necessary, the third match—in a best of three round one against the victor of the No. 8/No. 9 seed matchup.

FCC players lift Coach Pat Noonan to celebrate their victory in Toronto September 30.

Photograph by Joseph Guzy

On Saturday against East-worst Toronto, FCC looked to be cruising after Brandon Vazquez completed a brace just 35 minutes into the match. But the hosts struck twice via Jonathan Osorio before the half—one on a goalkeeping error by Roman Celentano—to level the proceedings.

But it was Aaron Boupendza who scored what would be the game-winner in the 72nd minute, finishing off a tidy feed from Acosta in another example of the duo’s chemistry improving week after week. Signed in June to replace Brenner, Boupendza has now scored five goals in his past eight matches. Vazquez is up to eight league goals on the year and has quietly scored 14 times in all competitions over his past 21 matches. FC Cincinnati’s new attacking trident is beginning to peak as the playoffs start later this month.

As for tonight’s home contest against New York Red Bulls, I went to bed Saturday night thinking Noonan could probably care less about the points record and would heavily rotate his side. And yet “wholesale changes” are not in the cards, even if the skipper opts to limit the minutes of his regulars through early substations or beginning matches on the bench.

I’m interested to see how FC Cincinnati will handle Saturday’s road match at Inter Miami. A victory over Messi & Co., if the injured star even laces up his boots, would be a near-death blow to Miami’s dwindling playoff hopes. The Herons sit four points out of the ninth and final East playoff slot with four matches remaining.

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

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