Three years as the worst team in the world followed by… my god.

A GIF is worth a thousand words:

When Chris Albright was hired as GM last autumn and Pat Noonan as head coach a couple of months later, the hope was both guys could take their vast MLS experience and infuse it into a team that had been built, torn down and rebuilt over the prior 36 months by guys who'd had none. Maybe by mid-2022 they could look non-catastrophic, and maybe by mid-2023 they could look pretty decent.

The timeline, it turns out, was much quicker than that. Albright laced the roster with MLS veterans, bringing in guys like Junior Moreno, Alvas Powell, Dom Badji and Ray Gaddis (taken out of retirement), all of which provided a level of stability previous iterations of the Garys had lacked.

And then Noonan got to work, squeezing the absolute best out of guys at the top end of the roster, developing the kids and instituting a wide-open, attacking style that made for weekly, must-watch soccer (they scored 64 goals this year; they’d scored 80 total in their first three).

Which led them to the playoffs. And led them to a playoff win, and eventually a knock-down, drag-out, make ‘em earn every inch exit against a great Philadelphia Union side – the very team Albright and Noonan had come from.

It is one of the great single-season turnarounds in MLS history.

Formation and Tactics

It seems like a million years ago now, but at the beginning of the season Brenner was stuck in paperwork limbo, then was nursing a knock, and then asked to be sold. There was drama.

While that was happening, Noonan had his team running out in a 4-2-3-1. But once Brenner was back, Noonan turned to the obvious solution: a 3-4-1-2 with the three-headed attack of Brenner, Brandon Vazquez and Lucho Acosta.

Those three guys also sort of defined the tactical approach, which was often to skip the midfield by playing direct to Vazquez and then go directly off of that, or to re-press if he didn’t control the initial ball. None of this (other than maybe the shape) should be surprising given Noonan’s Union roots.

Both fullbacks flew forward as well, which left a ton of work for the three-man backline and the two central midfielders. There was just an absolute ton of running, and a ton of action in Cincy matches.


There are so, so many to choose from. After a tough two-game start to the season, Cincy went 6W-3L-1D over their next 10 as Vazquez showed his late-2021 push was no fluke, and as Acosta showed he was back to his 2018-level best (the fact he was no longer dropping too deep to pick up possession was huge).

There was the 1-1 draw at Philly in mid-June, coming out of the international date. Cincy actually outplayed the Union in that game. They outplayed them again two months later at home, this time walking away with all three points courtesy of a 3-1 win. There was the 6-0 evisceration of the Quakes a month after that.

“Everything from June 18 to Decision Day is the highlight” also has an argument, as over that 20-game stretch, Cincy lost just twice. That’s the best of anybody in MLS.

But I’m forcing myself to choose one, and thus I’m going with the obvious one:

Armchair Analyst: Cincy 5-spot vs. DC United (1)

The second of those two losses (at home against Chicago, which we’ll get to in a minute) left the Garys in a spot where they needed to go on the road on Decision Day and get a result in order to secure their place in the playoffs. They responded by hanging a five-spot on D.C. United – an emphatic, uproarious performance.

A week later, they’d go on the road to Harrison and beat the Red Bulls 2-1 for their first-ever playoff win.


That Chicago loss, in which Cincy absolutely lost their minds and left themselves open for counter after counter, would go here if they hadn’t bounced back so admirably. You could also maybe point to the start of the season, which wasn’t great.

But I think the actual answer was a 2-2 home draw against Columbus in late August. Cincy had been utterly dominant and had twice taken the lead. Twice they coughed it up, with the second Crew goal coming six minutes into second-half stoppage.

That was a long-running theme, as Cincy dropped more points from leading positions this year than anyone but the Revs. It felt like if there was a moment when the vibes could get real bad, that was it.


Acosta’s discipline in putting together an MVP-caliber year (he was as good this year as Carles Gil was in 2021) was probably a revelation, as was Brenner’s jump from 8g/2a and really bad underlying numbers in 2,800 Year 1 minutes to 18g/6a and really great underlying numbers in 2,100 Year 2 minutes. But those guys are DPs.

Roman Celentano deserves a mention here, as he just put up the best season by a rookie goalkeeper in… maybe ever? Guys don’t tend to come straight out of college, win the No. 1 kit, hold it, and then show up well in the playoffs. He was very good.

Even so, we all know it’s Vazquez. The now-24-year-old was a career backup, both in Mexico and then in MLS, for more than half a decade before showing out at the end of last season. “Maybe this kid can do something like 12g/4a” was my take before the season started.

He went for 18g/8a in the regular season, added a game-winner in the playoffs, and should be going to the World Cup.

It didn’t come purely out of the blue – Vazquez was a highly-rated youth prospect, and his underlying numbers have always been good even in his limited minutes. But c’mon, going from “he might be a decent MLS starter” to “he might actually be the best pure center forward in the league” in one offseason is the definition of a revelation.


I… don’t think there was one? Brenner and Acosta struggling in the playoffs (Lucho’s inability to create separation has me convinced he was carrying an undisclosed knock) is probably the closest I can get to finding something truly disappointing.

But even that came on the road against two of the best defensive teams in the league. By typical Cincy standards, just being there is such a massive win that nothing about it can register as a disappointment.

2023 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Acosta (AM): Dynasties are built around in-their-prime 10s in this league. Lucho can be that guy.
  • Vazquez (FW): Assuming they don’t get an offer they can’t refuse, he’ll be among the Golden Boot favorites heading into next year.
  • Brenner (FW): Assuming they don’t get an offer they can’t refuse, he’ll be among the Golden Boot favorites heading into next year.
  • Obinna Nwobodo (DM): 9W-4L-10D with a +14 goal differential in his 23 starts… 3W-5L-3D, -6 goal differential in the other 11 games Cincy played. The numbers are telling the truth.
  • Matt Miazga (CB): Had a Nwobodo-esque effect on the defense, as their goals against dropped from 1.8/game without Miazga to 1.3/game with him.

Offseason Priority

All the pieces are in place for this to be a 60-point team next season, provided they upgrade one of the central midfield slots (Moreno is a good depth piece, but he’s not a starter for a title team) and right wingback.

Both the Red Bulls and Union pinched in from that side to get more help to Acosta because they knew leaving Powell alone wouldn’t come back to haunt them, and in Noonan’s 3-4-1-2 both wingbacks have to be able to provide the final ball. Powell gets forward well, but hitting that last pass has never been his strength.

They’ll also keep looking for center backs, of course, but that goes without saying because everybody is always looking for center backs.