National Writer: Charles Boehm

"What an atmosphere": FC Cincinnati savor breathless Hell is Real breakthrough

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After so much misery in their first few MLS seasons, FC Cincinnati have rapidly grown accustomed to winning. They now top the Supporters’ Shield standings with an MLS-best nine wins – remember, it took them two years to collect their first 10 Ws in this league – and have still lost just once in 2023.

Saturday’s breathless 3-2 Hell is Real Derby win over the Columbus Crew was special, though.

“I'd be lying if I said it wasn't,” head coach Pat Noonan admitted after a riveting Ohio grudge match at TQL Stadium illuminated by two goals and yeomanlike overall work from Landon Donovan MLS MVP contender Luciano Acosta.

“This was a neat experience and a neat win. You knew it was going to be difficult, and it was, but to be able to win against that team, in front of our fans, was important.”

Hell is Real triumphs have been vanishingly, painfully rare for FCC. Cincy announced their arrival on the national stage with an upset win over Columbus in the US Open Cup during their second year of existence, thrilling a delirious crowd at Nippert Stadium in 2017; they gained admittance into MLS less than a year later.

Yet they had to wait more than three seasons for their next one, a dead-rubber sort of victory in the fall of 2020, a few months before the Crew vanquished any lingering hurt from that result by hoisting the MLS Cup presented by Audi trophy. Even after Noonan and general manager Chris Albright arrived and sparked a dramatic turnaround in Cincinnati’s fortunes last year, the frustration continued with a draw and a loss in the season series against Columbus.

Bragging rights

All that history added up to a 2W-5L-4D all-time record (and a negative-10 goal differential) for Cincy vs. their in-state older sibling coming into this weekend’s clash. That only makes this win sweeter for Noonan, Acosta & Co. So does the physical, mental and emotional energy required to outlast the Crew, who battled back from an early 2-0 deficit to level the match early in the second half, only to be undone by goalkeeper Patrick Schulte’s distribution gaffe under pressure from Acosta, leading to Junior Moreno’s sidefooted winner.

Even at that, it took a stunning, point-blank, injury-time save from Roman Celentano on Steven Moreira to deny the Black-and-Gold a share of the points.

“That was a great win. What an atmosphere. What a game,” said Noonan. “I thought both teams played really well in different phases of the game. High energy, the individual quality that you saw on the field on both sides to be able to open the game up and get each team attacking … it made for an entertaining evening and I'm really thrilled for our guys to come out on top, against a very good team.

“Started off very strong, lost some momentum right before the break and then they carried that momentum out into the second half. But the guys showed a lot of character in being able to get past that tough stretch and find the third goal and then hold them off.”

Schulte's error

With noise and spirit in the Cincinnati air and an extra edge on the pitch, this was an evening that underlined why MLS and its clubs invest so much weight in rivalries. The teams’ contrasting styles also added to the fascinating encounter and Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy underlined his dogged commitment to his possession-centered philosophy with a thoughtful defense of Schulte after his costly error on the ball.

“I'm not surprised that we were able to come back [to] 2-2 because we showed personality,” said Nancy, whose side were at times breathtakingly clever in their buildups, inspired by the skill and chemistry of Lucas Zelarayán and Cucho Hernández. “After that, the third goal, this is difficult for everyone, but at the same time, I ask my goalkeeper to play also. Now he was almost crying, because he knows that this is something he’s usually pretty good at.

“The fact that he made this mistake, I think that he’s going to be better for that. Because it cannot be fair from me if I'm telling my goalkeeper now to try to put the ball away all the time. This is not the situation. He has to go through that, we have to go through that and find the nuance in the game. It’s all about nuance.”

Cincy, meanwhile, will surely be content to bank another three points to stay clear atop the overall league table, especially with their attack catching fire after extended difficulties in the season’s opening weeks.

Lucho's magic

The Orange & Blue have scored eight times in their last three matches, all wins, and Acosta in particular has been inspirational – not only with his usual playmaking artistry, but a ferocious commitment to pressing and backtracking against the ball, like the play that led to Saturday’s winner.

“Expectations are always high because of what he's capable of,” Noonan told reporters in his press conference a few minutes after extolling Acosta’s efforts in an interview with MLS 360. “And you see when he's engaged – I just talked about it a second ago – when he defends the way he did tonight, in helping us apply pressure and how he communicates with his teammates, it's so important for our group.

“Because he's a very smart defender. He's a smart player. And so he understands how to go to the ball. He understands when to go to the ball. And so he was really important – and we had a good conversation, the two of us, in the leadup to this stretch, of how important his leadership was going to be, and his play was going to be, and he stepped up tonight. He was a captain.”