FC Cincinnati’s Unbeaten Run Finally Ends. Now What?

Second-place New England visits TQL Stadium on Saturday. Will FCC rise to the occasion?

On the rare occasion that it loses, FC Cincinnati goes all-in. Forget about the proclivity for close games; FC Cincinnati loses hard. Two months after their first setback, a 5-1 drubbing at St. Louis, the Orange and Blue were bludgeoned 3-0 at D.C. United this past weekend.

Dominique Badji (left) scored against Toronto on June 21.

Photography courtesy Joseph Guzy

Poof went Cincinnati’s 14-game unbeaten streak in all competitions, as well as its unblemished run playing on two days’ rest under head coach Pat Noonan. FC Cincinnati had previously tallied seven wins and two draws in nine matches under such circumstances; D.C. United did not have a midweek match.

If you’re into the “this play was a microcosm of the match” type of analysis, D.C. United’s second-minute corner kick was a precursor of FC Cincinnati’s night to come. The Orange and Blue reacted slowly to a short corner kick and failed to cover D.C. United striker Christian Benteke—hard to miss as a 6-foot-3 target forward—who was unlucky to miss a completely free header on the periphery of the six-yard box.

Eight minutes later, D.C. United scored. The second goal came seven minutes later. The third and final score of the match—in which emerging star goalkeeper Roman Celentano was nutmegged—arrived just before halftime. Cincinnati was blanked for the second time in league play in 2023.

To make matters worse, center back Ian Murphy was sent off in the 79th minute after acquiring his second yellow card of the match, meaning he’ll be unavailable for Saturday night’s showdown with New England, which moved into second place in the East over the weekend.

FC Cincinnati has been desperately thin at center back, with Matt Miazga (international duty) and Yerson Mosquera (travel delay from international duty) unavailable vs. D.C. United and Nick Hagglund returning from a nagging hamstring injury over the weekend. The midweek victory over Toronto featured a very makeshift defensive formation—more on that in a second—but the back line absences were bound to sting at some point. Fortunately for FCC, Mosquera is expected to return to training this week and be available for selection against New England.

The lone positive on Saturday was Brandon Vazquez’s clutch goal in the U.S. Men’s National Team’s 1-1 draw vs. Jamaica in the Gold Cup opener. Vazquez’s tally in the 88th minute, six minutes after he was subbed into the match, also neutralized an earlier error by Miazga, who kept multiple Jamaican players onside in the sequence that led to Jamaica’s goal.

With Hagglund, Miazga, and Mosquera unavailable midweek, Noonan installed Murphy in the middle of Cincinnati’s back three against Toronto; he’d already racked up 21 starts and 34 appearances a year and a half into his pro career. Typical right wing back Alvas Powell started at right center back after deputizing in that position in recent weeks. Ray Gaddis, usually part of Noonan’s three-man rotation at right wing back with Powell and Santiago Arias, started at left center back.

Gaddis’ minutes at center back were his first since May 2022. The mild-mannered veteran even channeled some of Miazga’s trademark intensity when he went head to head with Federico Bernardeschi after the latter unnecessarily shoved Powell to the ground. Arias, who scored his first league goal vs. Toronto and surely thrilled youngsters with his Spiderman celebration, started at right wing back, with Alvaro Barreal slotted in his usual left wing back position.

FC Cincinnati was happy to concede possession (64 percent in favor of Toronto), preferring to work more directly, racking up more shots on goal (7 to 4) and dominating Toronto in expected goals (2.3 to 0.6). Further, Cincinnati capitalized on the visitors’ lapses in concentration, notably when Marco Angulo—handed a rare start with Junior Moreno injured on international duty—picked up an interception and an assist on Lucho Acosta’s fourth goal in four matches.

The 3-0 scoreline allowed Noonan to empty his bench and hand out MLS debuts to a trio of substitutes: Bret Halsey (age 23), Gerardo Valenzuela (18) and Stiven Jimenez (15!!!). Halsey, a short-term loanee from FC Cincinnati 2, became the first player signed to FCC 2 to appear with FC Cincinnati. Jimenez became the fifth youngest player in MLS history.

“It’s a microcosm of our season,” said Dominique Badji, scorer of the match’s third goal, per the team’s website after the game. “People have had to step so many times and play a new role and play well, and [Wednesday] was an amazing opportunity for people to come in and show what they’ve got and make the most of their minutes with a few absences … and the guys did it, I think, to the best ability I’ve ever seen. So this is a testament to our team and how deep we are.”

With the victory, FC Cincinnati became the first team since the 2002 San Jose Earthquakes to win its first 10 matches at home to begin a season. A new league record could be set Saturday evening against New England, which leapfrogged Nashville into the second slot in the East with a 2-1 triumph over Toronto on Saturday.

New England enters as winners of three straight and is unbeaten in six consecutive matches. The two sides drew 1-1 at Gillette Stadium in late April. Playing with a full week between matches for the first time since mid-May, I’d expect a rested FC Cincinnati to play with renewed fury and rise the occasion as it typically has all season—the Garys are unblemished (three wins, one draw) opposite teams currently in the East’s top five in 2023.

The positive vibes for Saturday began on Tuesday, when Acosta, Barreal, and Miazga were among the 26 players selected for the All-Star Game on July 19 in Minneapolis. Last week I wrote that Acosta was a lock to be chosen, while Barreal and Miazga had strong cases. Celentano, second in the league in clean sheets, was not one of the three goalkeepers picked.

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

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