FC Cincinnati’s start to life in MLS was, um…. to put it nicely, not great.
So by the time FC Cincinnati’s third straight year of finishing in last place in the Eastern Conference ended last fall, Luciano Acosta, who was wrapping up his first year with the club, had seen enough.
The Argentine midfield wizard had worn the captain’s armband throughout the 2021 MLS season for Cincinnati after signing with the club in March 2021.
Yet it’s one thing to wear a captain’s armband and quite another to be a captain.
“My way of playing hasn’t changed; it’s always the same. But I have assumed much more responsibility as captain. It was new being the captain in such a new team, it was all a process last year and now that process is bearing fruit this year,” said Acosta in a recent interview with MLSsoccer.com. “I try to speak with teammates to give them support by talking to each one in the locker room, on the field, and also serving as an example; running and working for the team.
“Last year it was all new for me being the captain for the first time and I learned in this process that I have to lead the group more, that I had to change my mentality more, my way of speaking with teammates, pumping them up, things like that.”
The results speak for themselves. Acosta is on a torrid pace of five goals and five assists through 13 matches, already almost bettering the 7g/10a numbers he posted in 2021.
More importantly, FC Cincinnati are, for once, looking down at other teams in the table. Despite a late 3-2 loss to the New England Revolution on Saturday, they are a very competitive sixth with 19 points (6W-6L-1D) through Week 13.
An assist from Joe Cool
But that still doesn’t really answer what the catalyst for change from Acosta was. A big part has come from the guidance he has received from a mental strength coach back home in Argentina.
Another key contributor has come from a star NFL quarterback.
“I’ve read the book about Joe Burrow here in Cincinnati and that’s helped me be a leader," Acosta said. "I’ve read that he’s a young leader, who has studied about leadership, and I put that into my head and try to imitate it and be able to do what he did.
“When you read the stories of how when he was young and how he led his team, and then when I see him on the field and how he leads his team to win, the truth is that it got my attention.”
Acosta is yet to meet the Bengals QB and regrettably was not able to attend last February’s Super Bowl – “We were in preseason…. Next year I’ll go and we’ll win it” – but it just goes to show how clearly tuned in he is to the Cincinnati community.
“I’ve found a great group in the club, really good people, outside of the club I’ve met people with whom I share time. My kids are happy in school, the school where they go is wonderful. My son goes to soccer and he has a lot of friends. My daughter goes to ballet and she has a lot of friends. It’s a really nice city and I’m very happy here,” said Acosta.
The 'what might have beens'
He may be just 27 years old, and it appears that he has found stability in his career at FC Cincinnati, but when one talks about Acosta, it’s impossible not to mention the various “what might have been” moments in his career.
What if, after debuting with the Boca Juniors first team at age 19 in 2014, he had stayed at Boca and not left Argentine football for MLS in 2016? It was a transformational time for the Argentine giants. Legendary midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme was in his final days at the club, as was gilded manager Carlos Bianchi. Maybe cementing his status at Boca could have led directly to Europe?
“I worked with Luciano for two years when he was in the Boca youth system. He did very well in the youth system and despite being a small, short player, he was brilliant. Very strong, powerful and skillful,” said Boca Juniors youth coach and former MLS player Diego Sonora.
“It would have been good if he could have stayed longer, but that is hard to do in a club like Boca, which is such a big club and always has big players. Him leaving was going to allow him to develop as a player, which is what happened and he was able to have success."
Then there is, of course, the famous transfer that wasn’t. Shockwaves went through league circles in January 2019 when it was learned that Acosta was closing in on a deal to move to French giants Paris Saint-Germain from D.C. United. But then, it didn’t happen.
Perhaps a year ago, it was still a sore spot for Acosta. Now, not as much.
“When I watch PSG games, it’s hard not to think that I could have been there, but I think nowadays my head is very calm, with people who help me. It is a topic I have been working on with my mental coach, to try to manage those things. But I can’t lie and say that I don’t wonder why I’m not there, but today it’s not as much as it was before,” said Acosta.
He could have been equally aggrieved about missing out on Atlas’ historic Mexican league title last December when the Guadalajara club, where Acosta played in 2020, won their first Liga MX crown since 1951.
“There is no bitter feeling there, not at all, because that was a process too. The players that arrived made the sacrifices to be champions, so I’m not bitter; in fact, I’m happy for my old teammates and the friends I made there,” Acosta said.
“He’s just so technical, so skillful”
Whether in Argentina, Mexico or MLS, one thing that seems to be universally agreed upon by those who played with Acosta or were close to him is that he remains one of the most skilled players they have come across. As he enters his soccer-playing prime, FC Cincinnati are sure to reap the rewards.
“Luciano isn’t a typical ‘enganche’, he plays more 1v1 duels. He wasn’t like Riquelme, but he was a great player and was one of the best from a system where there are many. When you are a coordinator in a club’s youth system, it makes you happy to see a player like him improve and grow. Seeing that he is a very valued player in another country, it makes us really happy to see that,” said Sonora.
Needless to say, he left a long list of admirers from his D.C. United days.
“I understood early on that when I got to D.C. with him, you still make the run, even if he isn’t seeing you at the moment, because there were times that he would get balls through two, three or four different people and I was able to get on the end of things and have dangerous opportunities,” said former D.C. United teammate and current FC Dallas man Paul Arriola.
The apex in the nation’s capital came in the second half of the 2018 season. Wayne Rooney arrived, Audi Field opened and Acosta, almost on a weekly basis, was weaving his magic wand in the D.C. United midfield.
“I remember a game versus the Red Bulls that we tied 3-3," said Arriola. "I think I had a goal off of one of his assists and I think he had a goal in which he dribbled down the end line and chipped it over the goalkeeper. Incredible.
“I think what made Lucho so great in 2018 and a little in 2019, and obviously now we see it much more on a consistent basis, is his end product. Before, he’s always been special, he’s always been creative, the ability to beat guys on the dribble 1v1 and make the next pass, but in 2018 it seemed like everything was clicking for him. He got assists left and right and scored goals and that’s how I see him now in Cincinnati. He’s a guy that’s able to make an impact in every game in the league," the US men's national team winger added.
There is still a lot of football left in Acosta’s boots. But that doesn’t mean he’s not already thinking about next steps.
Leaving his home country at a formidable age and then going through peaks and valleys in his club career, along with becoming a parent of two young children, have conditioned Acosta to adopt a much more mature approach to everything.
With that in mind, the seeds that he is sowing in Cincinnati are significant and his affinity for the city is such that he envisions spending his post-playing days making sure he passes on his knowledge to a new generation.
“I’ve thought about starting a soccer school here, of starting now or as soon as I can so that my son is in the academy where I can teach him. To be able to share with the kids is something that I have in mind. Here in Cincinnati, I have a couple thoughts, ideas, or it could be somewhere else, like Argentina, or in another spot in the US.
“If I stay here in Cincinnati, I will do it. There is a lot of opportunity here in Cincinnati, the truth is that people here show me a lot of affection. Right now, I’m with a friend and we are training some kids who are from the Latin community here and who have a lot of talent. We don’t want to waste it, so my idea is to start an academy with those kids who we are training,” said Acosta.
In a league with a history of happy marriages between Argentines and smaller-city teams, Acosta in Cincinnati looks poised to be following in the footsteps of Guillermo Barros Schelotto in Columbus and Diego Valeri in Portland.
Those two players not only pocketed Landon Donovan MVP trophies, but also led their respective teams to MLS Cup titles. There is still much to be decided in this 2022 MLS season and it may still be premature for FC Cincinnati to entertain those title thoughts, but with their diminutive Argentine playmaker and captain at the wheel, they will certainly have a chance.