The Hangover - FC Cincinnati's First Playoff Win, Red Bulls 1 : FC Cincinnati 2
FC Cincinnati won its first playoff game in club history yesterday. And I do mean club history, and yes I’m one of “those guys” who correctly sees advancing past Nashville in 2018 as a draw. We are very much in uncharted waters for The FC now, and you couldn’t ask for a better crew.
The first round matchup with the Red Bulls was more parable than playoff. Every single issue that Cincinnati struggled with this season was put to the test. The strength of their collective character was on the line. Winning after conceding first. Dealing with a team intent on frustrating the players and working the ref. Having a goal taken away via VAR. All three of the attacking trio struggling at the same time. Defensive errors leading to wonder-strikes. Holding a lead. Navigating through added time without conceding. This match put every single struggle and flaw on trial, and Pat Noonan’s team escaped looking like the better team.
The point has been made over and over again in the week leading up to this match, but the point needs to be emphasized again: the growth of this team, from the coaches to the players, from the first match of this season to the last is simply incredible. I know I am guilty of this, but it’s hard not to already get excited about next season while this magical season is still going. But that’s what happens when you have an organization with leadership and vision and a group of players capable of executing that vision.
Pat Noonan has said as much in post-season interviews. That he has grown a lot as a manager this season. And Saturday showed just how far he’s come. The pivotal moment for the new manager was substituting Brenner for Sergio Santos. I have yet to find an FC Cincinnati supporter who agreed with that decision in the moment. Many, like myself, were looking for Vazquez to come off. And yet the decisive moment of the game was Sergio Santos assisting Brandon Vazquez for the game winning goal in the 86th minute. It’s not a risky move that payed off, it was the right call in the right moment, even if fans couldn’t see it at the time. If you were skeptical of Noonan’s game management before this game (and I’m probably making this person up whole cloth) you have to be all-in on him going forward.
In defense, Roman Celentano continued to demonstrate he was the obvious pick in the MLS Super Draft and someone you have to think is destined for either a long career in Cincinnati or someone we’ll be watching on Saturday mornings overseas. Big save after big save kept this team in the fight while the one goal that was conceded was impossible to save. As we say on the PostCast, he kept the MLS clean sheet (only giving up one goal, ha!).
Geoff Cameron is playing out of his mind right now. The only thing I can compare Cameron’s resurgence this season to is like when you introduce a new puppy to your home with an older dog and suddenly the older dog has newfound zooms keeping up with the pup. That’s what Miazga has done for Cameron in this backline. He no longer has to cover for everyone’s mistakes and can play his game. Hagglund for his part continued his excellent season with crucial athletic plays. Hagglund’s play in this game in particular was reminiscent of peak Harrison Delbridge with clutch tackles that killed Red Bulls offense.
Outside Barreal had a fantastic match that included winning a penalty while Alvas Powell struggled a bit. Around halftime Powell had space to run into the Red Bulls box and looked to just completely lost his footing. Rather than attempt to regain the ball or apply pressure to a defender who might have come to win the loose ball, he appeared to give up on the play. Vazquez ended up winning the ball which makes Powell’s giving up on the play more damning. While this sequence did lead to a decent scoring opportunity, if Powell had either not lost his feet or kept with the play, he might have been able to square the ball to Vazquez for a point blank shot.
The midfield was sloppy at times but Obi Nwobodo played the game of his life. He was all over the Red Bulls and was shutting everything down. Chris Alrbright told The Athletic earlier this week that he didn’t want to sign Obi as a DP but felt the team had no choice in order to get him into this team. And like Albright I agree that price has still proven to be well worth it. His ability to win the tackle and the ball in the same move is a a rarity in MLS. This team completely transformed with his arrival and now he’s winning balls in playoff wins. He plays an unsung position and he will continue to be snubbed for year end accolades, but he is without a doubt the most important player on the field for The FC.
Junior Moreno was very good this game, better than he has been down the stretch, but Yuya Kubo was better. I’ll begrudgingly accept Kubo in the super sub role, but I still think he should be starting again. The tackle he won at midfield with a minute left in stoppage time was a thing of beauty, and stopped what could have been a disastrous moment for the Cincinnati defense. His cross field passing is also unmatched on this team. Yes he plays too far forward and leaves the defense exposed at times, but when he’s on the field FC Cincinnati seems much more dangerous going forward.
And while the headline story of this FCC team is the three headed monster that is Acosta, Brenner, and Vazquez, this match saw them all struggle early. And yet, the stat sheet will show Acosta and Vazquez each with a goal. Despite their early struggles, this team was still able to put balls into nets. That resiliency is something that had been missing earlier this year. That early frustrations would sink the confidence of the attack and lead to draws that should have been wins. Instead TQL Stadium and every other watch party around the Queen City was able to erupt with joy after 102 minutes of soccer thanks to their prolific goal scorers.
The Red Bulls for their part played the worst looking soccer I’ve ever seen. The constant flopping, diving, rolling, and other non-sporting movements were pathetic. If you were trying to get the stereotypical American sports fan into soccer by showing them this match, they’d swear off soccer for another decade. It was beyond pathetic and to the point where the league should intervene. There had to have been less than 10,000 spectators in Red Bull arena, that is drawing from a metro area of somewhere around 20,000,000 residents, to see this pathetic facsimile of soccer. Surely the negative approach to the sport as poisoned their appeal in their home market, turning off potential fans, and not even being successful doing it. As a fan of American soccer and someone who wants the top flight of American soccer to succeed, an intervention of some kind is necessary.
And we’ve seen this tactic work before. Anyone who watched Spencer Richey time wasting in the first minute of the FC Cincinnati - Chicago Fire match at TQL Stadium earlier this year can attest, FCC losses its cool in these moments. But not on Saturday. And that’s growth. And that’s coaching.
So this all leads to the incredibly delicious matchup between the Philadelphia Union and all of the people who left the Philadelphia Union to join FC Cincinnati. Because that’s how this storyline goes right? Chris Albright, Pat Nooonan, Sergio Santos, Ray Gaddis, and Alvas Powell all played or worked for Philadelphia last before coming to Cincinnati. And as this season has already shown, Cincinnati has them figured out. A 3-1 win earlier this year in Cincinnati was a consensus pick for best regular season win of all time foe the Orange and Blue. A 1-1 draw in Philly earlier in the year set the table for a long unbeaten run, the longest of any team in MLS this season.
They’re playing with house money from here on out, but if you are a little confident going into this match against the Philadelphia Union nobody could possibly blame you.