FC Cincinnati chase "something special now" after historic playoff berth

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FC Cincinnati's dramatic turnaround from persistent cellar-dwellers to an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs team came to an emphatic completion on Sunday, winning 5-2 at D.C. United on Decision Day.

Brenner netted his third hat trick of the season while Luciano Acosta and Brandon Vazquez rounded out the scoring, giving that fearsome attacking trio 46 goals and 33 assists combined in 2022.

The days of three straight Wooden Spoon finishes (bottom of overall MLS table) seem but a distant memory, when the Orange & Blue languished upon joining the league in 2019.

"We're going to try to enjoy the heck out of it because these players, and staff, have worked so hard to get to this point," said first-year head coach Pat Noonan. "Our goal wasn't just to get here and hopefully do something special now that we're here, but a lot of people put in a lot of hard work."

Coming off of a 3-2 defeat in their regular-season home finale last week against Chicago Fire FC, Cincy needed just a draw to clinch a playoff spot. Noonan was hoping for more, though, and got it early from his top players.

Brenner's first-half hat trick built a 4-1 lead at the break, and they staved off a push from this year's Wooden Spoon winners. Head coach Wayne Rooney's team started several teenagers ahead of an offseason of anticipated change.

“You'll probably hear it from them, in the coming days, guys that have been a part of the struggle, the work that they've put in and the patience that they've had to stick with it has paid off in a good way," said Noonan. "You can see it on their faces, you could feel it with each interaction and hug, so they should feel really good about themselves and the contributions that they've made to make this a reality.”

With the win, Cincy are the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference's playoff field and will visit No. 4 New York Red Bulls in Round One. Their 12 wins nearly equal the 14 the club reached during their first three MLS seasons combined.

Only a small handful of players remain from their inaugural 2019 season, further signifying the new era that's charting a new path. Both Noonan and general manager Chris Albright are in year No. 1 after joining from the Philadelphia Union.

"There were plenty of games throughout the second half of the season that let us know that we were capable of being a playoff team," said Noonan. "And tonight was another example of that.”

Naturally, emotions were beaming in a celebratory postgame locker room.

"I feel like the organization’s in a great place," said center back Nick Hagglund, a Cincinnati native. "I’ve been here for four seasons now and I’ve gone through the ringer in terms of what’s happened over the first three years.

"It’s been really cool to see the team come together. We had always envisioned what FC Cincinnati would look like, making it into the playoffs and being a team that competes. That’s what it was founded on in the USL, and I’m just really proud to be a part of it."

Should Cincy knock off RBNY on the road, they believe they can go far in the playoffs.

"We have such amazing talent on this team and hard workers," said Vazquez. "It’s all come together perfectly."