With 20 matches left in its fourth trip around the MLS sun, FC Cincinnati stands in unfamiliar territory: playoff position. Through 14 contests, FCC has registered six wins (tied for a club record), seven losses and one draw, which translates to 19 points, enough to occupy the sixth of seven playoff slots in the Eastern Conference.
Not only has first-year head coach Pat Noonan guided FC Cincinnati to its first-ever four-game winning streak, the club is also staying within reach in its setbacks—five of its seven defeats have been by a single goal. The Orange and Blue dropped 10 matches by two or more goals in 2021.
So who and/or what is responsible for the unexpectedly solid start to the season? I’m glad you asked.
Lucho Acosta and Brandon Vazquez are carrying the offensive load
Spending less time on defense and more time initiating offense in FC Cincinnati’s attacking half of the pitch has unleashed Acosta, with the 28-year-old No. 10 blossoming into one of the league’s preeminent playmakers. Earlier in the season, FC Cincinnati was squandering the Argentine’s brilliance. While the team is still struggling for goals outside of Acosta (five) and Vazquez (seven), FCC has improved its finishing to the extent that it ranks fifth in the East in goals scored.
Entering FCC’s final pre-international break tilt at Montreal, Acosta led the league with 76 shot-creating actions (per MLS) and was tied for first with New England’s Carles Gil with 44 key passes—34 more than anyone else on FCC. He’s the first FC Cincinnati player to record a goal and/or an assist in seven straight MLS games, notching four goals and four assists in the seven matches leading into the break.
Vazquez has continued his torrid form to end 2021 (three goals in five matches) into this season, with his seven goals tied for third-best in MLS. He’s added three assists (second-best on FCC) in 12 matches, too. Vazquez has caught the eye of U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter, who recently noted that the 23-year-old forward is “close to getting a call-up.”
Noonan may have to monitor Vazquez’s minutes moving forward, however. The 23-year-old forward has already set a career-high for minutes played in a season, and we’ve yet to reach the halfway mark of FC Cincinnati’s 2022 campaign.
The abominable goalkeeping has been rectified
Something had to be done about FC Cincinnati’s defense. In 2021, the club re-established its own MLS record for goals allowed in a season by surrendering 74 in 34 matches, an average of 2.2 goals per game. In 2022, FCC has allowed 25 goals in 19 matches. Not a great number, but with a goals-per-game average of 1.3 FCC has improved by nearly one goal per contest over last year.
Noonan has certainly made FC Cincinnati more defensive-minded, placing less emphasis on possession than FCC’s previous regimes. But the easiest fix was at goalkeeper, where longtime Atlanta United backup Alec Kann was brought in to replace Przemysław Tytoń and Kenneth Vermeer, two of the league’s worst shot stoppers from 2017 through 2021. Kann rated highly over the same period in shot stopping, albeit during limited minutes.
In seven matches, Kann has delivered a clean sheet and three matches yielding just one goal. His last match on April 16 vs. Atlanta was an incredible showing, as he recorded six saves in a 0-0 draw despite an expected goals conceded tally of 3.4. He’s been unavailable since then, however, due to injury, and so Roman Celentano, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 SuperDraft, has stepped up and perhaps made the starting role his for good.
Despite hitting a bit of a rookie wall before the break, Celentano notched a pair of clean sheets and 23 saves through seven matches. He’s kept FCC in multiple matches and yielded only four goals during the club’s four-game winning streak.
Once Kann is healthy, Noonan will have a tough decision on his hands between his two keepers, each of whom has played 630 minutes. Though Kann is only 31, young for a goalkeeper, Celentano won’t turn 22 until September and is the future of the position in the Queen City. Kann’s veteran presence can’t be discounted, and his accuracy on long balls (44% to 29%) is much better than Celentano’s. Celentano has a better goals against average (1.57 to 2.0) and a better save percentage (68 to 60).
Noonan and Albright find the right touch with roster additions
The biggest roster splash made thus far by FC Cincinnati General Manager Chris Albright was the acquisition of midfielder Obinna Nwobodo, who cost $3 million to import from the Turkish Süper Lig. Nwobodo is still getting acclimated to MLS play, but the Designated Player already ranks fourth on the club in tackles won despite appearing in just six of a possible 14 matches.
Albright, hired last October to fix the mess created by previous General Managers Jeff Berding and Gerard Nijkamp, has seen his under-the-radar offseason transactions mostly pay off. I already mentioned Kann, and Albright also brought in veteran right back/winger Alvas Powell, who did not have a good stay during FC Cincinnati’s first MLS campaign in 2019 but has revived his career over the past two seasons, including making 11 starts in 2022 and using his speed to provide width and incisiveness to FCC’s attack.
Albright came away with a haul in the January SuperDraft, selecting Celentano and center back Ian Murphy in the first round. Murphy has started nine consecutive MLS contests in 2022, becoming one half of Noonan’s preferred center back pairing.
Veteran MLS midfielder Junior Moreno was acquired from D.C. United days before the season opener and has ably filled the No. 8/No. 6 role in FC Cincinnati’s midfield, providing stability to a midfield long in need of an upgrade in competence and experience. Moreno and Acosta are the only two FCC players to start all 14 MLS matches thus far, and Moreno leads all regulars in passing accuracy (87%).
Noonan and his staff also deserve plaudits for Vazquez’s sustained run of excellence and not being afraid to bench high-priced striker Brenner, who has underperformed.
FC Cincinnati’s opening stretch to the season’s “second half” is brutal, with matchups against three of the East’s top five teams. First up is a June 18 tilt in Philadelphia against the Union, second-best in the East. Philly is a point behind New York City FC; the reigning MLS Cup winners are atop the East with 26 points and come to TQL Stadium on June 29. In between that matchup is a June 24 home date against Orlando, fifth in the East with 21 points. FCC have yet to face Philly and NYCFC this season but edged Orlando 2-1 on March 12 for its first triumph of the season.
This opening stretch could undo much of the positive progress FC Cincinnati have attained in 2022. Or it could serve a springboard to further fighting for a playoff spot.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.