FC Cincinnati has enjoyed more than its fair share of crossroads moments in its ascension to Major League Soccer’s top team. Take the hiring of Chris Albright (general manager) and Pat Noonan (head coach). Both were technically rookies in their respective positions, though each served in apprenticeship positions for many years.
The Albright-Noonan partnership’s first “splash” move was not for an impact offensive player or a center defender but for a defensive midfielder, a far less sexy signing. Obinna Nwobodo was a vitual unknown playing in the Turkish Süper Lig but quickly established himself as a ball-winning tackle force in MLS.
When FC Cincinnati selected Indiana University goalkeeper Roman Celentano with the second overall pick of the 2022 MLS SuperDraft, more than a few eyebrows were furrowed. Albright had already signed longtime and well-regarded Atlanta backup Alec Kann to start between the posts. And though Celentano was the first player to win Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year award multiple times, he also became just the third goalkeeper to be selected in the top-two of the draft—albeit joining elite company in Andre Blake and Brad Guzan.
Nearly 17 months later, it’s hard to imagine where Cincinnati would be without Celentano. On April 24, 2022, just over three months after being drafted, he made his first start for an injured Kann. In front of a national TV audience opposite Los Angeles FC—the eventual MLS champions—Celentano made six saves in a close 2-1 loss, earning MLS Team of Week bench honors.
He started every match throughout the remainder of the regular season and the postseason, tallying five clean sheets and a team record 85 saves operating with the third-worst defense in terms of goals allowed in the Eastern Conference.
The rookie goalkeeper routinely made highlight-heel stops, like his scrambling stop of a point-blank shot vs. Atlanta. Or a one-armed swat of the ball off the line in Seattle. Or blocking a penalty in a crucial last-season road match against Real Salt Lake. Or keeping the proceedings goalless in FC Cincinnati’s inaugural playoff match vs. the New York Red Bulls. Celentano’s exceptional rookie season was rewarded with his first call-up to the U.S. men’s national team in January.
Along with the rest of FC Cincinnati’s newfound fortress of a defense, Celentano has blossomed in 2023, with eight clean sheets in 16 league matches. Additional stunning saves have been added to the highlight reel, like last week’s scoop save on a wide-open header from NYCFC’s James Sands and the match-winning stop in the dying embers of the season’s first Hell Is Real derby.
Last weekend’s 1-0 victory over Chicago was the embodiment of Cincinnati’s defensive revolution, as Celentano and his fellow defenders failed to allow a single shot on goal. Not one! The Orange and Blue have ascended to unthinkable heights defensively less than two years after setting a MLS record for goals conceded. Further, FC Cincinnati has more one-goal victories (10) than any other team has total wins in 2023.
Celentano is fortunate he only has to face Alvaro Barreal in practice, not matches. Barreal was the author of a goal so special midweek against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds that it might have added another million dollars to his transfer price when he eventually departs for Europe. FCC’s 3-1 victory over USL side Pittsburgh in the U.S. Open Cup propels the Orange and Blue to a semifinal matchup vs. Inter Miami. That’s right, folks: The GOAT is coming to Cincinnati (hopefully). Lionel Messi’s signing with Miami will afford him plenty of time to get acclimated to MLS before his team visits TQL Stadium on August 23.
Speaking of goal-scoring, FC Cincinnati has reportedly locked in its replacement for Serie-A bound Brenner, its former No. 9. Aaron Boupendza, a 26-year-old striker/winger who most recently played for Saudi Pro League team Al Shabab, is scheduled to link up with Cincinnati next month for a reported $7 million transfer fee.
Boupendza is slated to join Nwobodo and Lucho Acosta as Cincinnati’s Designated Players, after tallying 13 goals and three assists in 20 games for Al-Shabab. His career breakthrough came in 2020-21 when he notched 22 goals in 36 matches in the Turkish Süper Lig, the same league where Nwobodo shined.
MLS’s summer transfer window doesn’t open until July 5, so Boupendza’s first possible FCC match would be July 8 at Charlotte. Beyond being Brenner’s replacement, he also represents a win-now move for Albright, who could have pursued a younger, cheaper player.
This Saturday, FC Cincinnati travels to Vancouver for the first time in club history, playing what will be its eighth match in 25 days. The Orange and Blue have six victories and one draw over that stretch and are unbeaten in 12 matches overall.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.