Anyone who regularly reads this column knows my long-held stance on trophy supremacy in MLS: MLS Cup is the exclamation point at the end of the season, the one that everyone wants most, but the Supporters’ Shield is the one that best reflects the absolute quality of teams. How you handle the 34-game grind – the type of week-to-week consistency of talent and focus and energy you bring – is the ultimate measure of a team, because that 34-game grind is less subject to bad luck, or bad officiating decisions, or injury. Those things, in all but the most egregious cases, tend to balance out over a large enough sample size.
In short, you are what your record says you are.
And so I feel pretty comfortable saying FC Cincinnati were the best team in MLS this year, and one of the best dozen (or so) in the league’s history. No, they abjectly did not show any of the above in the final 60 minutes (including extra time) of their Eastern Conference Final loss to Columbus. But that’s where the luck comes in, and in the regular season the Garys showed an uncanny ability to bounce back from bad moments and immediately right the ship.
In the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs or the US Open Cup? There’s no bouncing back. A bad moment means you’re done.
Because of that reality, Cincy fans are now in hell. It’d be unfair and unrealistic for me to say “the loss shouldn’t color the way we look at Cincy’s season” because that loss not only colors the way that we’ll look back at this season, but also at the way we’ll look forward at 2024. You don’t lose two home semifinals and avoid the “can they get over the hump in the big game?” scrutiny.
But the loss to Columbus last weekend and the loss in August to Inter Miami should not overshadow just how consistently excellent this team was all year long. Luciano Acosta was a deserving MVP winner, Matt Miazga was a deserving Defender of the Year (we’ll talk about his off-field decision-making later, I promise) and Pat Noonan was a deserving Coach of the Year. They sold Brenner for big bucks and got the type of season out of Álvaro Barreal that suggests more big-money sales are on the way.
They won a lot. They played good ball. They got their first trophy (or the first they wanted, anyway, since I guess technically the Wooden Spoon counts as a trophy).
It was a massively successful season. It probably just doesn’t much feel like that right now.
Formation & Tactics
Noonan had this team come out in a 3-4-1-2 pretty much every single game this season. Lucho was the 10 pulling the strings underneath a pair of forwards – first Brenner and Brandon Vazquez, then mostly Aaron Boupendza and Vazquez once Brenner was sold – with Barreal, nominally a wingback, bombing up the left side and adding a new kind of heat to the attack.
Lucho and Barreal were both in the top 10 in chances created, the only teammates to rank that high together. Cincy as a whole generated a bunch of good chances by playing direct to Lucho in the left channel, then either having him hit big left-to-right switches to the right wingback, or having him combine with Barreal and the forwards.
The underlying numbers liked all of this quite a bit, and their expected goals differential was the best in the league.
There was nothing overly fancy about it. Cincy were just very well-organized, and very willing to put the ball on Lucho’s foot and have him make the game. It is a testament to him that he did so as effectively as he did as often as he did.
Cincy’s season kicked off on Feb. 25. Over the next four months, they’d take the field 23 times across all competitions.
They lost once. It’s one of the best runs of half-season match-winning I can recall in MLS history – it wasn’t really about “form,” per se, as this was nothing like the heater Philly got on in the second half of 2022 when they were scoring four goals a game; this was about grinding out one-goal wins. It effectively won them the Shield by giving them enough padding to survive the inevitable downturn.
I think, if Cincy fans were to pick one game from the bunch as the highlight, they’d probably pick the 3-2 Hell is Real home win in May, and fair enough since that was maybe the best regular-season game in the entire league this year.
But for me, the actual pick of the bunch – the one that was the best example of who Cincy were this year – came in an ugly 1-0 home win over Seattle in Matchday 3. The Sounders had blazed out of the gates and looked like early favorites in the West, but Cincy just locked it down, got their goal midway through the second half, and took care of business. It was intense and professional in an “oh, this team’s for real this year, aren’t they?” kind of way.
Of course, that was all ugly as hell, so the real highlight is this:
There aren’t a lot of guys who can do a credible Maradona/Messi tribute in a real game with real stakes. Good god.
On Aug. 23, they took a 2-0 lead over Miami at home in the US Open Cup semifinals. They held that lead into the middle of the second half, and were just 25 minutes from hosting the final and playing for what would’ve been a Shield/Open Cup double.
They conceded in the 68th and the 97th minutes. They then conceded at the start of extra time, but managed to equalize before losing in penalties. It was a massive opportunity squandered.
On Dec. 2, they took a 2-0 lead over Columbus at home in the playoffs. They held that lead into the middle of the second half, and were just 15 minutes from hosting the final and being favorites to win a Shield/MLS Cup double.
They conceded in the 75th and the 86th minutes. Then they wilted in extra time before Christian Ramirez’s match-winner in the 114th.
Gonna be a lot of sleepless nights this winter.
Barreal was clearly a very good player last year. Now, though, we’re at the point where I expect a team like Ajax – or even actually, you know, Ajax – coming in with a too-good-to-refuse bid this winter.
The mark of a healthy club is both winning and developing young guys with potential into top young talent. It’s amazing how quickly Cincy have checked those boxes.
Miazga earned maybe the dumbest suspension in MLS history for picking up a yellow card in the shootout win over the Red Bulls in Round One of the playoffs.
He then immediately earned an even dumber one that ruled him out for the remainder of the playoffs. For the record: I think they beat the Crew if he’s available. Even with injuries to Obinna Nwobodo and Nick Hagglund, and with half the team running out of gas around the 70-minute mark, I think if there’s one more high-level piece out there, Cincy get it done.
Five Players to Build Around
- Acosta (AM): The MVP.
- Nwobodo (DM): The best defensive midfielder in the league this year.
- Miazga (CB): Hopefully he grows from this.
- Roman Celentano (GK): Steady, mistake-free presence in the back.
- Boupendza (FW): “Mercurial” is a word that comes to mind, but so is “talented.” I think there was much more good than bad from him this year despite some bright red flags.
Barreal and Vazquez are likely to be sold, I think, and young Yerson Mosquera was in town on a loan that’s now come to an end. There was no buy option.
That’s three super high-level starters, and those are the obvious places they need to focus on this winter: left wingback, striker and center back. The growth of Ian Murphy and the flexibility of Alvas Powell (I thought he was very good against the Union and Crew as a right center back in the 3-5-2) makes me significantly less concerned about the Mosquera replacement than I am about Vazquez and especially Barreal, but all three spots have prime places on GM Chris Albright’s to-do list.