With seven out of nine points obtained through three matches following a 1-0 victory over Seattle, FC Cincinnati is off to its best start since 2019. At the center of Cincinnati’s success has been the heart of its formation, the midfield, and in my opinion the team’s standout performer has been Obinna Nwobodo.
Rumors preceded his official arrival for weeks prior to his official signing in April 2022, and a Ph.D in soccer tactics was not required to know that Nwobodo was going to be a hand-in-glove fit. In the press release announcing his arrival, FCC General Manager Chris Albright touted his “work rate and defensive presence.” Translation: Obi wins the ball with ferocity and frequency. A former midfielder in my much younger years, I derive joy out of watching Nwobodo unleash his bag of defensive tricks to win tackles and make interceptions, mixing his pace, strength and brains to outrun, out-muscle, and out-think opponents.
The 26-year-old was named to MLS’s Team of the Matchday for the second time in three weeks after a defensive masterclass in which he, fellow defensive mid Junior Moreno, and the rest of Cincinnati’s defense blanked a dangerous Seattle side—doing so with 10 players for the game’s final 29 minutes—that stood atop MLS in goals, expected goals and shots on target through two matches.
On Saturday evening, Nwobodo paced the Orange and Blue in tackles and tackles won, and for the season the Nigerian is in the 100th percentile for defensive action regains (11.4 per 90 minutes), and leads MLS in defensive regains (37). After scoring his first-ever MLS goal in the season opener, Nwobodo’s forced turnover on Nicolas Lodeiro, a fellow Designated Player, initiated the sequence that led to Brenner’s first score of 2023.
Nwobodo’s impact was immediate in 2022, with his energy and defensive commitment releasing Lucho Acosta from most of his defensive duties and in turn helping FC Cincinnati’s potent attack flourish. Nwobodo was a bit undisciplined, though, notching 10 yellow cards in 23 matches. He’s already shown more restraint in 2023, avoiding a caution through three matches.
Nwobodo arrived in Cincinnati from Turkey’s first division. At the time of his departure, he was first in the Turkish Super Lig league in tackles, pressure, and ball recoveries and was among the league leaders in interceptions. Signed in Cincinnati through 2024 with an option for 2025, he’s made Albright’s first Designated Player signing look like a very shrewd move.
FC Cincinnati’s other two midfielders aren’t exactly slouches, either. I’ve spilled plenty of ink on Acosta’s greatness, and Moreno has been sturdy thus far, assisting on Brenner’s goal over the weekend while staving off rising prospect Marco Angulo and Yuya Kubo to start each of Cincinnati’s first three matches. Moreno’s strong play was rewarded earlier this week with a call-up to the Venezuelan national team. After conceding the third-most goals in the East in 2022, FC Cincinnati has allowed just one goal through three contests, with a central role played by Nwobodo and his midfield mates.
A deserved victory over a top-tier opponent prompted more emotion from FC Cincinnati than it would typically show for a win in March. Head coach Pat Noonan and Brandon Vazquez embraced intensely at the final whistle, and similar reactions came from other players and staff. Next up is a trip to Chicago (with just one point from three matches) on the freezing banks of Lake Michigan.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.