Ranking FC Cincinnati’s Eight Possible Playoff Opponents in the East

FCC’s playoff journey begins Sunday night at TQL Stadium in the first game of a best-of-three series.
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On Sunday evening, FC Cincinnati begins what it hopes will be a six-week march to MLS Cup glory. The Supporters’ Shield victors will find out their round one opponent tonight when the No. 8 seed New York Red Bulls host No. 9 Charlotte in the Eastern Conference’s Wild Card match. The winner faces FCC Sunday at TQL Stadium in the first match of a best-of-three series; game 2 is an away match on November 4, followed by an if-needed Game 3 at TQL on November 11. [Note: NYRB beat Charlotte 5-2.]

A quick rules minder for round one: No ties or aggregate scores. Matches tied at the end of regulation proceed directly to penalty kicks. Should the Orange and Blue advance to MLS Cup on December 9, the away game in this first round would be its lone road trip of the postseason; the conference semifinals and finals are single-match series played at the higher seed’s site, and Cincinnati has clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

FC Cincinnati was less-than-inspiring in last weekend’s regular-season finale, a 2-2 draw at home against Atlanta United. Cincinnati twice went behind in the first half before managing a 2-2 scoreline at half. The hosts then failed to score against 10-man Atlanta following Thiago Almada’s red card in the 51st minute. It was the third successive match that the Garys submitted (at minimum) a concerning first-half performance defined by general sloppiness in defending, passing between the thirds of the field, and finishing.

Optimists will note that following the Shield-clinching victory on September 30 in Toronto, FC Cincinnati players likely lost their typical zest for regular-season matches and instead focused on staying healthy and/or avoiding injury. Gunning for New England’s single-season points record (73) was a non-starter for Cincinnati, which wound up playing 42 matches over eight months between regular season (34), U.S. Open Cup (5), and Leagues Cup (3) competitions. And six FCC players suited up for their respective national teams over that period.

Pessimists will argue that since FC Cincinnati has not played a meaningful match since September 30, it should have endeavored for more crispness entering the playoffs. Cincinnati doubles as a first-time frontrunner, which could lead to nerves in round one. And now there’s the distraction that is Aaron Boupendza.

The Gabonese striker, signed in July as Brenner’s replacement, was kept out of the squad vs. Atlanta for failing to return on time from international duty, per a pre-match team statement. Head coach Pat Noonan told reporters after the match that the “matter hasn’t been put to bed.” Going public with both a team statement and Noonan commenting on the status of the “matter” leads me to believe that Boupendza and the team are not on the same page regarding the discipline and/or his promptness. He’s scored five goals in 10 matches.

Now on to the point of this piece. At the moment, there are eight possible opponents for FC Cincinnati to face at some point during the Eastern Conference playoffs. I’ve ranked them not by seed or who possesses the most talent, but by which side stands the best chance of knocking the league’s top regular season outfit out of the playoffs.

No. 8: Charlotte FC

Regular season results: 2-2 draw, 3-0 win

The biggest worry vs. Charlotte would be overconfidence. FC Cincinnati’s 3-0 win on September 23 was perhaps its most complete showing of the season (Charlotte recorded zero shots on target). Cincinnati could be as meh as it’s been over the past month and still win two of three.

No. 7: New York Red Bulls

Regular season results: 2-1 win, 2-1 loss

The Red Bulls needed a 94th-minute penalty kick vs. Nashville over the weekend to reach the playoffs for the 14th season in a row. Working against New York is them flipping over the beer pong table at FC Cincinnati’s Supporters’ Shield party earlier this month in a very chippy contest, as well as its impotence in front of goal (fewest goals scored among East playoff teams). Cincinnati would be more than amped for this matchup.

No. 6: Atlanta United

Regular season results: 2-1 win, 2-1 loss

I almost slotted Atlanta seventh due to its leaky defense—most goals allowed among East playoff teams—but the duo of Thiago Almada (30 goals plus assists) and Giorgos Giakoumakis (17 goals, tied with Lucho Acosta for second-most in the league) is too dynamic to completely overlook. Atlanta will be without Almada for the first match of its round one series vs. Columbus.

No. 5: Nashville SC

Regular season results: 1-0 win, 3-1 win

Nashville’s hallmark is defense (joint-fewest goals allowed in MLS), but its recent form (two wins in last eight league matches) and lack of scoring punch behind reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar makes it very beatable.

No. 4: Philadelphia Union

Regular season results: 1-0 win, 2-2 draw

FC Cincinnati has played the reigning East winners tough since Noonan took over, grabbing eight out of 12 points over four regular season tilts. Philly also ended Cincinnati’s season a year ago in a 1-0 decision in the East semifinals, a night the local lads surely haven’t forgotten. These two squads know each other very well on and off the pitch, and a best-of-three series would likely be short on goals and heavy on hard midfield challenges. Acosta’s game-breaking ability would be the deciding factor.

No. 3: New England Revolution

Regular season results: 1-1 draw, 2-2 draw

By holding on for dear life in a 2-2 draw on July 1—FC Cincinnati tied a club record with 22 shots—New England became the first visiting team to take points off FC Cincinnati in its fortress in 2023, snapping the Orange and Blue’s 10-match winning streak. The Revs appear to have navigated their coaching crisis, and former MVP Carles Gil (26 goal plus assists) remains a menace in the attacking third.

No. 2: Columbus Crew

Regular season results: 3-2 win, 3-0 loss

If Columbus didn’t own a propensity to yield late and/or easy goals—the Crew dropped an astounding 22 points from leading positions in 2023, per MLS—then Cincinnati’s rival would be the easy No. 1 choice, despite being the East’s No. 3 seed. Anyone who watched Columbus dismantle FC Cincinnati 3-0 on August 20 knows how frightening the league’s top scoring squad can appear when all of its playmaking pistons are firing. Cincinnati would rightly reference the absence of Matt Miazga and Yerson Mosquera in August and that it also was both coming off a two-week layoff and was facing Lionel Messi and Inter Miami in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals three days after Hell Is Real. In any case, it’s difficult to envision Columbus holding onto a one-goal lead before a deafening TQL Stadium crowd.

No. 1: Orlando City SC

Regular season results: 0-0 draw, 1-0 loss

FC Cincinnati has not beaten Orlando this season. No MLS side tallied more road victories than Orlando, who have lost just twice over its past 17 matches and averaged more points per match than any team over that span. Facundo Torres and Duncan McGuire combined for 27 league goals. Mauricio Pereyra, Martin Ojeda, and Ivan Angulo each have at least eight assists. Pedro Gallese can take over a game in net. Head coach Oscar Pareja has won a Supporters’ Shield and two U.S. Open Cups in MLS. I don’t believe it will happen, but Orlando prevailing over FC Cincinnati would not be considered a massive upset.

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

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