National Writer: Charles Boehm

FC Cincinnati outlast Toronto FC in thriller: "Just a hell of a game"


Sometimes the soccer gods, the players on the field and the fans in the stands combine to produce an unforgettable show. Ninety-plus minutes of breathless spectacle that turns coaches into riveted spectators just like the rest of us, even as they find themselves infuriated by their team’s defensive breakdowns, or falling on the wrong side of the final scoreline.

Toronto FC and FC Cincinnati treated 27,941 at BMO Field and a global audience on MLS Season Pass to just such an occasion on Saturday night.

“I guess from an entertainment standpoint, the viewers got their money's worth,” said FCC coach Pat Noonan drily after his side’s 4-3 win, which keeps Cincy on pace with Inter Miami atop both the Eastern Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings. “Certainly the Toronto group is playing with some confidence and some momentum, and it was good energy in the building tonight.”

His opposite number John Herdman had to concede much the same, even as he rued walking away with zero points despite yeoman’s work from his squad.

“As a coach, I enjoyed it, I enjoyed that football match. Just seeing the lads give everything, two good teams going after each other, with a lot of quality players on the pitch,” said the Englishman. “Just a hell of a game.”

Epic battle

The night’s winners walked away with their MLS-best sixth road win of the season and an encouraging display of the resilience and adaptability required to achieve it. The group on the losing side got a lesson in what it takes to compete with an established title contender, and how close they’ve gotten to that level in just a few months under Herdman’s guidance – and showed their supporters, in heart-racing fashion, how legit their revival really is.

“I think it's the performance. I said to the players, they have to feel something tonight,” said Herdman, whose team must now visit two East adversaries in four days next week. “It's how they feel coming off the field. Because we don't control the results. We just don't control those outcomes. But I said, you have to feel, they have to feel something tonight. You have to make them feel that dread of coming back to this stadium.

“They were brave tonight; some of the passages of football were top level,” he later added. “It took a lot of courage to break their press at times and players were living right on that razor's edge. I thought our players took themselves to the place where yeah, big mistakes are right on the other side, but they were living on that edge. So proud of that … we showed championship ability tonight against a team that is a championship team. But there was a gap still, and the gap was the loss. We've got to close that gap.”

This one had something for everyone. Tactics nerds can chew on the chess match that played out as both coaches tweaked their shape and sought out their optimal individual matchups. Cincy’s teenage frontline of Kevin Kelsy and Dado Valenzuela switched sides in the first half; then their wingers, Bret Halsey and the excellent Luca Orellano, did too. TFC soon matched them by flip-flopping their wide men Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Tyrese Spicer.

Elite attacking stars seizing the spotlight? FCC’s Lucho Acosta shrugged off the close attention of Deybi Flores, Matty Longstaff and the TFC defense to make a difference, starting the sequence that led to Sergio Santos’ game-winner in injury time. Kelsy, his new attacking colleague, continued to show his value, scoring Cincy’s second and offering the physicality, movement and combination play they’d lacked since the departure of Brandon Vazquez.

“Kevin allowed us to compete for some of the more direct play when we didn't have solutions to play with the ball on the ground,” noted Noonan of the Venezuelan target man on loan from Shakhtar Donetsk. “I liked the way he was getting out of pressure. I think he recognized how to receive the ball at times, how to turn to open up the game a little bit and switch play, had some really good touches under pressure and with a guy on him, so you could see that was different than what we've seen from our group out of that position all year.”

Insigne puts on a show

Meanwhile Lorenzo Insigne produced one of the top performances of his Toronto career to date. The Italian creator found Flores with a corner-kick delivery for TFC’s opener, instigated the Ian Murphy own goal that leveled the match at 2-2, equalized again from the penalty spot at 3-3 and clanged a screamer off the top corner of the woodwork from 35 yards out before seeing another clutch late leveler scotched by an offside flag.

Perhaps most strikingly, the well-compensated Designated Player - whose commitment was angrily questioned by segments of the Reds supporters during an injury-plagued, overall miserable 2023 - was palpably, emotionally invested throughout, diligently tracking back to defend and looking distraught to the point of tears after the final whistle.

“He’s going to rise to those occasions, 100%,” said Herdman. “Lorenzo, he’s had a rough ride. It's not been easy. You've got to understand, the lad came here with high expectations to do big things. He's a winner. He wants to win everything. But he's had injuries, and now it's the first time really in his career, it is just one after another.

“So tonight, to see him going 99 minutes, 100 minutes was a big step, I think, for the team, for the fans. But even just his commitment in those minutes, I think if he played another 10, he could have scored another two goals. He was just loving it. That shot against the crossbar, maybe only Messi could do something like that in this league. I mean, that was magic.”

Beasts of the East

Also impressive, and perhaps sobering for their counterparts across the East: Both these teams remain well short of their maximum potential considering their missing contributors and limited time together thus far.

TFC were missing their other Italian star, Fede Bernardeschi, due to a cautions-accumulation suspension and expect to soon welcome Richie Laryea back from injury. Cincinnati have made significant changes to the lineup that won the Supporters’ Shield last year yet have stayed on course, perhaps even improved, picking up results while integrating new pieces.

“Defensively I think we've been pretty solid for a majority of the year – obviously tonight may be a little bit of an outlier, but I just think that the relationships are improving, the understanding of some of the roles and just specifics within it are improving for the guys,” said Noonan. “So I hate saying things take time, but in terms of this particular group meshing and improving, we’re what, 15 games in and I think you've really seen improvements over the last two or three weeks that we were really struggling with in certain areas to start the season. So I'm really pleased with where the group's at, and I think they all know, and our staff knows, that there's there's plenty to improve, which is a good thing, considering where we're at.”