A new dawn? FC Cincinnati deep dive on reaching expansion club “milestone”

FC Cincinnati certainly aren’t hanging any banners or throwing a downtown parade, but the club made some minor history Friday night upon beating Orlando City SC at TQL Stadium.

That 1-0 victory pushed the Orange & Blue to a club-record seventh win in a campaign, simultaneously reflecting their growth under first-year head coach Pat Noonan and struggles upon entering MLS as an expansion team in 2019.

“I think it's just another step, another milestone, you could say, in ways we're finding some success,” Noonan said as they moved to 7W-7L-2D just before the 2022 season’s halfway point, sitting narrowly above the Eastern Conference’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line.

Here’s a look at the fourth-year club’s previous tough sledding, who’s been key to Cincy’s turnaround and some expansion club context in recent MLS history.

Past seasons

FC Cincinnati earned the Wooden Spoon each of their first three seasons, meaning they finished bottom of the overall table. A meager six wins in their inaugural campaign was the previous high mark, as hopes of postseason soccer often flickered away as summer turned to fall.

  • 2019: 6W-22L-6D record, -44 goal differential
  • 2020: 4W-15L-4D record, -24 goal differential
  • 2021: 4W-22L-8D record, -37 goal differential

Summed together, it put FCC’s record across their first three seasons at 14W-59L-18D with a combined -105 goal differential. Of note: The 2020 season was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic – teams played a maximum of 23 games as opposed to the traditional 34 – but signs of growth were hard to find.

Those struggles also meant FC Cincinnati went through three full-time head coaches, starting with Alan Koch and then continuing through Ron Jans and Jaap Stam – the latter two a nod toward the club’s early Dutch leanings. Yoann Damet (twice) and Tyrone Marshall (once) both served as interim head coaches as well.

Pat Noonan Cincy
Pat Noonan worked under Bruce Arena and Jim Curtin before going to Cincinnati.

New course, difference-makers in 2022

With success hard to come by, FC Cincinnati went in a new direction this past offseason – bringing in Noonan shortly after general manager Chris Albright had joined. Both leaders were previously with the Philadelphia Union, one of the Eastern Conference’s top sides for the past half-decade.

From an ownership group that’s shown a willingness to spend, it was a clear doubling-down on MLS experience as FCC entered their first full year at TQL Stadium, the club’s 26,000-seat soccer-specific venue that opened in May 2021.

They didn’t have a ton of roster flexibility this past offseason, instead coaxing more out of key players and bringing in some veteran additions, plus one Designated Player. Here are some standouts.

Club captain Luciano Acosta is among the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP frontrunners, posting five goals and seven assists through 16 matches. The Argentine playmaker is on pace to rival his 10-goal, 17-assist 2018 campaign with D.C. United that generated a near-transfer to French powerhouse Paris-Saint Germain.

With eight goals and three assists through 15 games, Brandon Vazquez has sparked some US men’s national team consideration and possible calls for a late push onto their Qatar 2022 World Cup roster. Now in his third season in Cincinnati, the striker spent his previous three pro seasons at Atlanta United. He’s a top-five player in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.

The first marquee signing of Cincy’s new regime, Obinna Nwobodo joined in mid-April from Turkish Süper Lig side Göztepe S.K. The Nigerian defensive midfielder has already proven his worth in eight games, taking a Designated Player spot at a crucial position.

Some other highlights are goalkeeper Roman Celentano (2022 MLS SuperDraft No. 2 pick), midfielder Junior Moreno (trade with D.C. United) and winger Alvaro Barreal – the former two of whom were offseason signings.

Former USMNT center back Geoff Cameron and striker Brenner, a reported $13 million signing for 2021, carry big expectations as well given their backgrounds and résumés.

Recent expansion clubs

In broader MLS terms, it’s instructive to put FC Cincinnati’s mini-milestone in the context of other expansion teams.

Here’s a closer look at how long it’s taken other new clubs to reach seven wins in a single season. Charlotte FC's first-year story is barely half over, but all others reached seven wins on or before Decision Day, whereas Cincy required nearly three-and-a-half years.

Our starting point is 2015, after which MLS has added an expansion team nearly every year – it's also when Targeted Allocation Money was introduced for roster-building purposes.

2015 expansion

  • New York City FC: Week 24 of inaugural season | 10W-17-7D record
  • Orlando City SC: Week 22 of inaugural season | 12W-14L-8D record

2017 expansion

  • Atlanta United: Week 17 of inaugural season | 15W-9L-10D record
  • Minnesota United FC: Week 25 of inaugural season | 10W-18L-6D record

2018 expansion

  • LAFC: Week 14 of inaugural season | 16W-9L-9D final record

2019 expansion

  • FC Cincinnati: Lone entrant, earned seventh single-season win in Week 16 of fourth year (2022)

2020 expansion

Shortened season (by 11 games) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Inter Miami CF: Week 23 of inaugural campaign | 7W-13L-3D record
  • Nashville SC: Week 20 of inaugural campaign | 8W-7L-8D record

2021 expansion

  • Austin FC: Week 28 of inaugural season | 9W-21L-4D record

2022 expansion

  • Charlotte FC: Carrying 6W-8L-2D record into Week 16

Playoff soccer?

At their current pace of 1.44 points per game, FC Cincinnati are on track for roughly 49 points this year. That’s been enough to make the East’s playoff field the past couple of full seasons, when seven teams from each conference have qualified.

Further, per Opta, some underlying numbers suggest Cincinnati are actually underperforming their capabilities in 2022. They’ve scored roughly four (4.06) goals fewer than their expected goals suggest (sixth-highest difference in MLS), and have allowed roughly two (2.18) goals more than their expected goals suggest (sixth-highest difference in MLS).

Maybe this small bit of history is bigger than we think.