National Writer: Charles Boehm

FC Cincinnati: Did dramatic playoff advancement come at a cost?


Sometimes a scoreline simply doesn’t do a match justice.

” barely begins to convey the full spectacle of Saturday night’s duel between the New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati, a Round One Best-of-3 series match defined by two clutch goals, 34 fouls and a busy night for referee Victor Rivas amid a bevy of bone-crunching challenges, a potential 98th-minute stunner overturned by Video Review, a 10-round penalty-kick shootout won by Roman Celentano’s save of Andrés Reyes and a second yellow card during said shootout which did not result in an ejection.

To top it all off, Cincy’s ebullient celebrations of their series-clinching result in front of Red Bull Arena’s South Ward prompted debris thrown from RBNY’s packed supporters’ section.

“You have games like that: physical, fouls,” FCC head coach Pat Noonan said after Match 2 of their Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs test.

“How the officials are able to manage that is challenging, and top players that have been in these moments before and understand how to navigate a game like that don't let it affect their play. And a majority of our guys, I thought, handled the type of game that we saw in a good way.”

Acosta the hero

New York set the tone with their breakneck pressing and rugged, occasionally brutal physicality, and Tom Barlow’s 45th-minute opener arose out of the chaotic tempo that can incite. But after a rough start to the night, Cincy found another gear after halftime, inspired as usual by the excellence of playmaker Luciano Acosta, who played a game-high seven key passes, none more vital than his precise delivery on the run to assist Aaron Boupendza’s 75th-minute equalizer.

Afterwards, Noonan revealed his Argentine star and Landon Donovan MLS MVP favorite was playing through pain.

“If you look at his first half, it wasn't his strongest. There were moments where we're so accustomed to seeing him deliver that final pass, where either the pressure got to him or he was a little off on the decision,” said the coach.

“He didn't let it affect him; he rarely does. He gets on with it. And he’s struggling physically because he's dealing with a foot injury and I think this three-week break will really benefit him. But it's just pain tolerance, and he's a tough kid, man. Still found a way to get that assist on Aaron's goal, so he continues to find the pass, the goal, the moment that helps our team win a game. So it wasn't always pretty, but he has a look in his eyes and determination right now where he wants to go and win another trophy.”

It was another crushing end to a season for the Red Bulls and their fans, plus another hard-earned step towards MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9 for Cincinnati – but it may yet prove a pyrrhic victory.

Miazga suspended

The Supporters’ Shield winners were already missing center back Nick Hagglund to a season-ending hamstring injury, and saw striker Dom Badji and d-mid Obinna Nwobodo limp off with knocks on Saturday. They then lost influential center back Matt Miazga for their Eastern Conference Semifinal vs. the winner of the Philadelphia-New England series later this month – held either Nov. 25 or 26 after the the November FIFA international window – due to caution accumulation under bizarre circumstances.

“I'm very pleased that we're moving on. Again, it was not an easy game and we advanced, that's the most important thing,” said Noonan. “It took its toll on us. We have to see how Dom and Obi come out of this, but there's concerns there. And you know, Matt's suspended for the next game and that shouldn't happen. So hopefully we get some good news on the injuries and we can have a strong and as healthy of a group as possible going into the next round.”

First Miazga picked up a yellow card for something he said to Rivas immediately after the full-time whistle, disagreeing with Acosta's would-be Olimpico that was waived off for a foul in the buildup. Then the former Red Bull was shown another yellow for what was officially termed “excessive celebration” during the shootout as he either taunted or apologized, depending on your interpretation, to the RBNY supporters for converting his spot kick against his hometown club.

Under a 2020 change to IFAB’s Laws of the Game, cautions received during a shootout do not apply towards those received during that match, thus Miazga was not shown a red card. That was only an academic distinction for Cincy, however, because Miazga had picked up a caution during Match 1, so with three yellow cards, the MLS Defender of the Year frontrunner will now be suspended for their next match – which, unlike Round One, will be a one-game series.

“The injuries are part of it,” added Noonan. “Sometimes you can't avoid it. Obie gets stepped on, he's obviously had to come off. So, there's concern. But Dom was muscular. We obviously have a long break now, but we'll see how that news comes out in the coming days. And Matt – Matt knows better, we shouldn't be missing him for the next round, as simple as that.”

Lesson learned?

The coach wasn’t certain of FCC’s options in terms of avenues to appeal Miazga’s caution. While Noonan suggested they would pursue such an effort if possible, he emphasized “we need to prepare a scenario that doesn't involve Matt,” which likely entails the likes of Ray Gaddis deputizing at right center back and shifting Yerson Mosquera to Miazga’s central spot.

Miazga’s case, the showers of debris from the stands and the night’s generally angry, frustrated vibe constitute a learning experience for a Cincinnati group largely building their collective tournament know-how on the fly. Time will tell as to whether they suffer negative consequences in trying to complete a Shield-Cup double as winter nears.

“If you're going to go over to the opposing fans and taunt or have that moment and act in a certain way, expect s--t to be thrown at you,” said Noonan. “Just figure out a different way to celebrate if you don't want to have stuff being thrown from the stands. But that doesn't make it OK. By no means am I condoning anybody from the stands throwing objects onto the field; you're putting the players and people around at risk. So it's not the first time we've seen it, and hopefully we don't have to think about putting ourselves in those positions because of the way that we enjoy a victory.

“You don't want to take away from the high of the victory,” he added when asked about his messaging on this front. “Because in the end, that's what you're focusing on, advancing, and the guys did a lot of good things to be in a position in advance. But it's good learning moments to understand how to better navigate the in-moment feelings about a call or fouls compounding and becoming enough that there's frustration. Got to figure out a way to get past it. So it'll be a good lesson for us.”