FC Cincinnati's 2023 Journey: Triumphs, Trials, and the Road to 2024
For those who are regular readers of this column, my enduring perspective on the supremacy of trophies in MLS is well-known: while the MLS Cup signifies the pinnacle at the close of the season and is coveted by all, the Supporters' Shield stands as the true reflection of a team's absolute quality. The ability to navigate the 34-game grind, showcasing week-to-week consistency in talent, focus, and energy, serves as the ultimate metric for evaluating a team. This sustained effort is less susceptible to the whims of bad luck, officiating decisions, or injuries, which tend to balance out over a larger sample size.
In essence, a team is defined by its record.
Therefore, I assert with confidence that FC Cincinnati demonstrated themselves as the premier team in MLS this year, ranking among the top dozen or so in the league's history. While their performance in the final 60 minutes of the Eastern Conference Final against Columbus did not reflect their season-long excellence, the ability to rebound from setbacks during the regular season showcased resilience. In the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs or the US Open Cup, such recovery is not an option, as a single misstep spells the end.
In the wake of their recent loss, Cincinnati fans find themselves in a challenging position. It would be unfair to suggest that the defeat should not color our perception of Cincinnati's season, as it undeniably influences how we reflect on this year and anticipate 2024. Enduring two home semifinal losses invites scrutiny regarding their ability to perform in significant matches.
However, it's crucial not to overshadow the consistently outstanding performance of this team throughout the year, despite the setbacks against Columbus and Inter Miami. Luciano Acosta rightfully earned the MVP title, Matt Miazga deserved Defender of the Year (acknowledging discussions about his off-field decisions), and Pat Noonan merited Coach of the Year. Successful player transfers, including the sale of Brenner, and standout performances, such as Álvaro Barreal's, suggest a promising future.
Their style of play was anchored in a 3-4-1-2 formation deployed consistently by Coach Noonan. Notably, Acosta and Barreal ranked in the top 10 for chances created, showcasing their offensive prowess. The team's direct approach, often involving Lucho's orchestration on the left, contributed to a high expected goals differential, underscoring their effectiveness.
The season's highlight was a remarkable four-month stretch where Cincinnati lost only once in 23 matches across all competitions. This run, characterized by grinding out one-goal wins, provided the necessary cushion for securing the Supporters' Shield.
Choosing a single highlight is subjective, but the gritty 1-0 home win against Seattle showcased Cincinnati's intensity and professionalism, affirming their legitimacy as contenders. Conversely, the lowlight moments, including squandering a 2-0 lead against Miami in the US Open Cup semifinals and a similar collapse against Columbus in the playoffs, cast a shadow on what could have been.
Álvaro Barreal emerged as a revelation, transitioning from a very good player to someone who may attract attention from top clubs. On the other hand, Matt Miazga's suspension, incurred through a yellow card in the shootout win over the Red Bulls, proved costly, possibly impacting the team's playoff trajectory.
Looking ahead to 2024, key players to build around include MVP Acosta, standout defensive midfielder Nwobodo, resilient defender Miazga, goalkeeper Celentano, and promising forward Boupendza. The offseason priority lies in addressing potential departures, particularly Barreal and Vazquez, and filling gaps in the left wingback, striker, and center-back positions. The growth of certain players, coupled with strategic moves in the transfer market, will determine Cincinnati's prospects in the upcoming season.