Meet the new regime, same as the old regime. That’s a thought surely shared by FC Cincinnati supporters as their club was throttled 5-0 by Austin FC in the 2022 season opener. Unfortunately, the match was another in a long line of comprehensive blowouts suffered by the local lads since joining Major League Soccer four seasons ago.
Though the underlying statistics suggest the scoreline flattered the Texas-based hosts, FC Cincinnati have far from earned any benefit of the doubt, especially to a second-year MLS side that struggled in its first season. Austin posted the worst scoring differential (minus-21) in the Western Conference in 2021 and scored a league-low 35 goals. Naturally, on Saturday Austin scored one-seventh of their entire 2021 goal total from last year.
First-year FC Cincinnati coach Pat Noonan was certainly disappointed after the match but didn’t reach for any sky-is-falling narrative. “The message to the team is we’re not all of a sudden a bad team because of the score line,” he said. “The score hurts. There’s no question about that and that should bother us, and that should hopefully motivate us going into our home opener, but we’ll take a look at this in a way where we see the chance creation and the ability for us to go forward but how do we clean up little details to not concede. And make sure that they understand as we prepare for D.C. and as we step out on the field in front of our home fans, make sure that they understand that what they saw tonight isn’t gonna be indicative of what we’re gonna be moving forward.”
The game’s first half was a carbon copy of many deficient 45-minute displays from FC Cincinnati in years past. Just two minutes in, Austin’s Cecilo Dominguez ridded his marker to score far too easily on a very defendable free kick. Twelve minutes later, essentially the entire FC Cincinnati defense was caught ball watching as a half-cleared Austin corner was redirected past new goalkeeper Alec Kann.
The Orange and Blue had a chance to snare a score back in the 29th minute and possibly alter the match’s complexion. Brandon Vazquez calmly settled a 40-yard pass from Tyler Blackett and then created space for a shot, which he sent nowhere near the target despite being yards away from the goal.
Austin’s third goal, which put the match to bed, came minutes before intermission. FC Cincinnati’s defense was simply passed around and made to look like statues in its own box. Again, the stats weren’t awful for the visitors in the first half. Austin scored on all three of their shots on goal, and FC Cincinnati, starting plenty of new faces, were less-than-clinical in the handful of chances they created.
There were a few surprises in FC Cincinnati’s starting XI, notably 22-year-old rookie forward Nick Markanich making his MLS debut alongside Vazquez in Noonan’s 4-4-2 formation. Markanich, a 2022 SuperDraft second round pick, had just agreed to a contract earlier in the week.
Kann, right back Ray Gaddis, and defensive midfielder Junior Moreno made their FC Cincinnati debuts as starters, while 20-year-old midfielder Harrison Robledo, signed to a Homegrown contract on Friday, and veteran forward Dominique Badji recorded their first appearances for the Orange and Blue as substitutes. Right back Alvas Powell, who played for FC Cincinnati in 2019, made his (re)debut as a sub, too.
As noted in my season preview, because he missed practically the entire preseason Brenner would be a substitute for the first few matches. He made the bench on Saturday but never got off of it. It’s notable that forward Calvin Harris, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2021 SuperDraft, failed to make the match day squad. Alvaro Barreal, whose preseason was essentially lost to immigration delays like Brenner, did not make the squad either.
Next up for Noonan’s squad is the home opener Saturday evening against D.C. United, which dealt expansion team Charlotte FC a 3-0 defeat last weekend. The scoreline was gracious to the hosts, who were out-possessed and registered less shots on goal than Charlotte, playing its first-ever MLS game on the road. D.C.’s goals came via a penalty kick and two deflected balls.
Expect Noonan to make a handful of changes to the starting XI. It’s doubtful that Brenner will be ready to start, but he should be able to play 30 or so minutes as a substitute after another full week of training. It’ll be interesting to see if Allan Cruz and Yuya Kubo, who started as double No. 8s in Noonan’s midfield diamond formation, are granted another shot to steady their partnership after a poor showing in Austin.
On Monday, Acosta, the team’s captain for the second straight year, posted a Twitter apology to FC Cincinnati fans and promised to “show who we really are this season next Saturday.” It’s noteworthy, slightly admirable, and perhaps a bit unnecessary that he felt the need to apologize after the season’s initial contest.
Perhaps Acosta believes that the team that showed up in Austin failed to resemble the side that, by all accounts, enjoyed a strong preseason. Or maybe, after enduring the pain of 2021, he realizes that FC Cincinnati can’t afford a performance anything resembling the Austin showing on Saturday if the team is to prevent alarm bells from ringing throughout TQL Stadium. And, hell, a string of positive performances could convert some local baseball fans, too!
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.