FC Cincinnati left a rain-soaked Lower.com Field Sunday evening not only having lost Hell Is Real (again), but also having completed its most trying week of the 2022 campaign—the club’s very own Week From Hell.
Following a disappointing midweek 2-2 draw vs. Vancouver, yet another Hell Is Real derby defeat and a pair of personnel blows, the Orange and Blue are wobbling. Though Sunday’s 2-0 setback in Columbus snapped an on-the-surface-impressive six-match unbeaten run for head coach Pat Noonan’s bunch, FC Cincinnati (27 points, seventh in East) haven’t won in almost a month.
“This was one of the first in a while where it felt like we just weren’t good enough on the night,” Noonan said after FC Cincinnati fell to 1-5-3 vs. the Columbus Crew in MLS games. “And the disappointing part is, we know how much it means to the club and to the fans. And so to not be able to send the ones that came home happy, that’s disappointing, and certainly the ones that have supported us along the way and are back home, we’re going to continue to work to make our fans proud of what we’re doing.”
The first Hell Is Real matchup of 2022 was FC Cincinnati’s third match in nine days, as well as its second straight match sans MVP candidate Lucho Acosta. Though he’d already sat out against Vancouver for a straight red card on July 9 against the New York Red Bulls, the MLS Disciplinary Committee handed Acosta an additional two-match ban on Friday, citing “aggressive behavior” toward a match official in the waning moments of the match. Noonan took issue with the decision when talking after the Crew match, alleging that the official was a “showman in the moment.” Suffice to say, Noonan and members of the Disciplinary Committee will not be exchanging holiday cards.
So, without Acosta—and Junior Moreno for the seventh straight match—Noonan pivoted from his customary 3-5-2 formation in Columbus and lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Playing with a back four for the first time since May 28, per the FoxSports1 broadcast, rookie center back Ian Murphy started over veterans Tyler Blackett and Geoff Cameron. After filling in for Acosta as the team’s No. 10 midweek, Alvaro Barreal moved to left wing Sunday. Brenner dropped into the No. 10 role, and Yuya Kubo shifted from central midfield into an attacking role next to Barreal and Brenner.
The match started off well for FC Cincinnati, as Columbus goalkeeper Eloy Room mustered a miraculous goalline save to keep Barreal off the scoresheet in the fourth minute. Minutes after a would-be Columbus penalty was waved off, new Crew Designated Player Cucho Hernandez punched in a clever set-piece header in the 16th minute. FC Cincinnati did a decent job of limiting clear-cut chances throughout, but an 86th-minute handball penalty conceded by Obinna Nwobodo was the death blow. FCC struggled to muster much offense, recording just two shots on goal.
A Crew side that’s played below its talent level for much of the 2022 campaign is officially revitalized. Sunday’s win extended the 2020 MLS Cup champions’ unbeaten run to eight matches and saw them leapfrog FC Cincinnati in the East standings.
The loss in Columbus would have been dulled a bit had FC Cincinnati taken care of business midweek against Vancouver at TQL Stadium. Up 2-1 in the final minutes of the match, new striker Sergio Santos fluffed a golden opportunity to ice the game. FCC’s defense on the ensuing counterattack was lackluster, and Vancouver tallied the equalizing score in the 82nd minute. (Entering Sunday’s matches, the Orange and Blue had lost 15 points from “winning positions” in 2022, tied for second-most in the league.)
Worse yet, Santos injured himself minutes after Vancouver’s equalizer and had to be withdrawn less than 20 minutes after making his debut as a substitute. His absence stung on Sunday, as Noonan was forced to throw on unproven forwards Calvin Harris and Quimi Ordonez late in the match.
A handful of players could probably use time off—Barreal and Nick Hagglund have played every minute of the past three matches—but there’s no rest for the weary. Nashville (30 points, fifth in West) visits TQL Stadium on Saturday evening.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.