National Writer: Charles Boehm

FC Cincinnati pass toughest playoff test yet: "It wasn't always the prettiest"


Have we just witnessed a changing of the guard?

FC Cincinnati’s last-gasp 1-0 Eastern Conference Semifinal win over the Philadelphia Union was as taut and tense as they come, a slugfest decided by one single, late, unexpected, controversial, quite-possibly-but-not-quite-certainly offside Yerson Mosquera tally. When the final whistle blew, the two combatants were separated by just 0.2 expected goals before another feverish crowd at TQL Stadium.

It is risky and sometimes outright irresponsible to construct narratives on such matches. Yet it’s hard to avoid the sense that the conference’s balance of power just shifted west a few hundred miles, with Cincy’s ascendance grinding on past a key milestone while Philly stare at the prospect of an admirable competitive cycle closing, or at least evolving significantly.

“We move on,” FCC head coach Pat Noonan said afterward. “Really, really pleased with the guys to find a way to advance. It wasn't always the prettiest.”

Student now the master?

Noonan got the better of his former Philly boss Jim Curtin, aided by former Union figures like GM Chris Albright and veteran defender Ray Gaddis – who stepped into the breach of a severe availability crisis to help Mosquera and Ian Murphy post a clean sheet in the absence of Matt Miazga (suspended) and Nick Hagglund (injured) – as well as the protective shield of defensive midfielder Obi Nwobodo – who edges closer to match fitness but was still not quite ready for this clash.

Here, it was Noonan praising his troops – measured praise, mind you, reflective of the lingering upside and unmet expectations that he sees in his squad – and giving thanks for the home-field advantage that might well have made the difference, mindful of the agonizing loss to the same familiar adversary, by the same scoreline, that ended Cincy’s 2022 at Subaru Park a year ago.

“These were the goals for the beginning of the year, in terms of, how can we play in front of our home fans? We knew what it was like last year being on the road, how challenging that was,” said Noonan, freshly anointed as Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year, an honor in which he was preceded by, yes, Curtin. “We’ve positioned ourselves to play at TQL for the entirety, and you can see where it can become an advantage, when the games are tight, when you know you're not playing your best, which was certainly stretches tonight.”

Meanwhile, Curtin had to rue the vagaries of another big-game disappointment, the Video Review non-intervention on Mosquera’s winner and the organizational decision, made above his head, to inform club captain Alejandro Bedoya a few weeks ago that he would not be returning to the club for 2024.

Last year the East Final featured Philly vs. reigning MLS Cup champions New York City FC at Subaru Park. This year, it will be a Hell is Real derby at TQL Stadium, with Ohio seizing the soccer spotlight for the first time in quite a while as the slick-passing Columbus Crew renew hostilities with their high-pressing neighbors to the south next Saturday, Dec. 2 (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

“I hope we embrace it,” said Noonan. “It's certainly going to have some nice storylines attached to it, but it's a very good [Crew] team. We split the season series, but they're in very good form and will be a very tough opponent for us. So I hope our guys embrace just another playoff game, another playoff game in front of our home fans. Now you add in the rivalry. So I'm looking forward to the preparation phase of this and then being out here again next weekend.”

MLS is both a copycat league and a viciously competitive wheel-of-parity-fortune where staying at the top is far, far harder than getting there. Philadelphia maintained a half-decade of constant competitiveness by crystallizing their identity and hewing to it, keeping things as simple as possible and learning how to win, and that blueprint, while customized to their particular terroir in southern Ohio, is evident at FCC.

Mosquera's moment

Noonan was honest in admitting the game-winning sequence – a quickly-taken free kick squared by Luciano Acosta to Álvaro Barreal, who launched a cross onto Murphy’s head that was flicked to the feet of Mosquera for a surprisingly icy finish from the big center back – was no training-ground masterpiece.

“Strategy? No, not expected. There was nothing that we've prepared at any point,” said Noonon. “It was nice to see them come up with a play. I said before the game to the guys, in these moments, in the playoffs, strange things happen. How do you go after a game if you're down a goal? How do you protect a lead – maybe guys being asked to do different things than they're accustomed to, because it's win or go home. So just happy we found our goal.”

Albright showed similar resourcefulness in getting Mosquera into an Orange & Blue kit in the first place. The 22-year-old Colombian is a season-long loanee from Wolverhampton Wanderers, a blue-chip prospect searching for minutes, and his marked levels of performance and maturation in North America effectively only enhance the likelihood of Wolves – who are said to be quite impressed by his displays in MLS – bringing him back to England for a closer look this winter.

“Yerson, I would say it's a mixed bag. I'm hard on him because he is, and has the potential to be, a top talent,” said Noonan. “When you talk about with and without the ball, how does he impact the game? You know, there could have been better decision-making with the ball. Without the ball, I thought he was really strong – timing of his tackles, how he defended the box.

“I thought he for the most part controlled emotions in a good way, in those moments. Still have a couple things where, too much interaction with the opposition – you just got to think about playing the game. So it's a mixed bag. But in the end, he comes up with a big play for us and we keep a clean sheet. So he deserves a lot of credit for that, especially being in the middle of our back line in an important game.”

As those words indicate, Cincy view themselves as a work in progress, a group learning on the job. And yet that ongoing process now has them just 90 minutes from MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec 9.

“I think there were stretches where we tried to do too much,” said Noonan. “Again, how you lose focus at times because of the opposition or call that doesn't go your way, that stuff still has to improve. We can always be better in those moments, and there was some of that tonight. So we’ll talk about those things.

“If you want to be a championship team, you have to get all of these things right. Each game that you advance, the margins for error are smaller, and you have to be improving as you go through it.”