A truism of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs is a simple one: Your best players have to be your best players. It’s simple, it’s self-evident and it’s boring.
Of course your best players need to show up for a successful run through an elimination tournament, but FC Cincinnati were staring at the abyss of a one-and-done in their first-ever MLS playoff match until Luciano Acosta and Brandon Vazquez stepped up Saturday at Red Bull Arena.
On a sunny fall afternoon in New Jersey, Cincy trailed the New York Red Bulls by a goal as a choppy game creaked closer to the final whistle. Then Cincy won a penalty kick, which Acosta confidently walked up to and buried in the 74th minute. Twelve minutes later, with the probability of extra time and possibly PKs looming, Vazquez scored the game-winning goal after beating RBNY center back Aaron Long in an open-field run.
At the final whistle, FCC had beaten New York 2-1 in Round One, the postseason's first upset as the Eastern Conference's No. 5 seed overcame its No. 4 seed.
“It’s no surprise at this point,” head coach Pat Noonan told media after the game. “[Acosta and Vazquez] find ways to make big plays in big moments.”
Acosta was the regular-season assist king, with a league-leading 19 helpers to go alongside 10 goals. Vazquez enjoyed a career year with 18 goals and eight assists. Brenner, the third member of that attacking trio who had 18 goals and six assists himself, was largely ineffectual before being replaced by Sergio Santos midway through the second half. In a swap of Brazilian strikers, Santos provided the assist for Vazquez's one-time strike.
“The fight we have is unbelievable,” Vazquez told MLSsoccer.com’s David Gass postgame. “You can tell this squad, we never give up until the whistle's blown. We came back today and what a game we had.”
After a subdued first half, Lewis Morgan opened the scoring for RBNY in the 48th minute with a long-range golazo, only to exit with an injury after the celebrations. Cincy thought they got a goal back on Junior Moreno's deflected strike, but Video Review correctly ruled the goal out for offside. Despite the frustrations, Cincy kept coming back.
“We’ve experienced so many challenging moments that it enabled us to figure out in the biggest moments how to come out on top,” Noonan said. “It’s a credit to the mentality in the group to keep going.”
The 2022 season was supposed to be a rebuilding one for FC Cincinnati as they transitioned into another new era following a third straight last-place finish, another lowlight for a team that joined MLS in 2019.
Chris Albright took over as general manager in the fall, then appointed Noonan as the Orange & Blue's head coach – with both arriving from the Philadelphia Union. The winter came with some change, but there weren’t a ton of key external additions before opening day in late February, giving the impression the rebuild was going to take time.
In the months ahead, Cincy signed Moreno, Obinna Nwobodo and Matt Miazga. The new playing style made them among the most entertaining teams in the league, with Acosta, Brenner and Vazquez playing like stars.
Cincy kept improving as the season went on, losing twice since the June international break (7W-2L-12D). Just making the playoffs wasn’t enough; they were desperate to win their first-ever playoff game. Now, they’re dreaming of more.
"We're a team to be scared of,” Vazquez said. “I know teams don't want to face us and for good reason. We've got an incredible team and I could see us winning it all.”
Up next, for a team whose identity largely stems from the Union, is a trip to Chester, Pennsylvania on Thursday evening for an Eastern Conference Semifinal (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).
Philadelphia have been a force at the top of MLS for years and had their best season yet in 2022, leading the league in both goals scored (72) and fewest goals conceded (26). Philly, the East's No. 1 seed, just missed out on the Supporters’ Shield to LAFC due to the “most wins” tiebreaker.
Albright was part of the front office that built that club, having worked on the Union technical staff since 2013 until he was named Cincy's GM 12 months ago. Noonan was a Union assistant under Jim Curtin from 2018-21. Curtin remains close with Albright and Noonan.
“This is a cool story. … This should be fun,” Noonan said.
“It’s pretty cool we get to face the top team in the conference on the road in what will be a hostile environment and see what we’re about,” Noonan said. “It’s no surprise on their end they’re in this position. Our guys will be excited for the opportunity.”
Cincy played the Union better than anyone in MLS this year, getting a result in both games. The two clubs drew 1-1 at Subaru Park in mid-June, then Cincy put together a 3-1 statement win at home in early August.
“We've done it before and we can do it again,” Vazquez said. “We're ready.”