FC Cincinnati stunned as 2023 season ends: "It hurts"


FC Cincinnati’s storybook 2023 season has ended in heartbreaking fashion, with the Supporters’ Shield winners letting a two-goal lead slip from their fingers in the Eastern Conference Final before falling at home to Hell is Real rivals Columbus Crew.

Saturday’s 3-2 extra-time loss was almost unimaginable after the Orange & Blue took a 2-0 goal lead deep into the second half on goals from Brandon Vazquez and Luciano Acosta.

With Cincinnati minutes away from hosting MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9, the Crew turned it around late with three straight unanswered goals – the third and decisive one coming in the 115th minute on super-sub Christian Ramírez’s tap-in.

Head coach Pat Noonan understandably struggled to make sense of what transpired at TQL Stadium.

“The goal was to win MLS Cup and I think we were close, and that’s why it hurts,” Noonan told reporters postgame. “It hurts because of losing at home, it hurts because of the scoreline mid-game, it hurts because of who beat us tonight.

“So there’s a lot of things that make this a hard one to take and I feel for the guys.”

Late breakdown

Things were mostly going Cincinnati’s way throughout much of the night, starting with Vazquez’s 14th-minute opener. Acosta, named Landon Donovan 2023 MLS MVP this week, doubled the lead right before the break with a curling effort to the far post off a backheel flick from Álvaro Barreal.

“I thought we had opportunities to certainly get the third,” Noonan remarked of his team’s chances to put the game away.

They didn’t, and the Crew responded by bringing on Ramírez and Julian Gressel. The latter forced Alvas Powell’s 75th-minute own goal and participated in Diego Rossi’s 86th-minute equalizer. By the time Ramírez pushed home Cucho Hernández’s header to complete the comeback, several Cincinnati players were struggling to run and noticeably fatigued.

“We lost our legs,” Noonan said. “They just wore us out. The guys gave everything, I cannot fault them.”

Picking up the pieces

Despite Saturday’s gut punch, there are mostly positives for Noonan and Co. to take from a historic season that saw Cincinnati win their first-ever trophy and take home multiple individual prizes – including Acosta’s MVP, Noonan’s Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year award and the suspended Matt Miazga’s MLS Defender of the Year nod.

"We'll look at the beginning of '24 with an immediate need to hit the ground running and be ready to move forward," Noonan said. "I think we have a lot of pieces in place to maintain some consistency in our success.

“ ... Everybody just needs to take this moment and feel the disappointment,” he said. “And then hopefully there’s a period of time where guys can step back and appreciate where we’re at as a club and the position that we're in to hopefully compete for trophies every year.”