CINCINNATI — Coming off the club’s first playoff run last season, FC Cincinnati has entered new territory. For the first time since joining MLS in 2019, the Orange and Blue carry expectations into this season.
FCC coach Pat Noonan, who is entering his second season, has said on multiple occasions the team is “not going to surprise anyone,” so players will need to raise the level of competition even more in 2023.
They went 12-9-13 (wins-losses-draws) and finished fifth in the Eastern Conference last year, winning a first-round playoff game at New York Red Bulls before falling to the Philadelphia Union in the conference semifinals.
FC Cincinnati opens the 2023 season Saturday when it hosts Houston Dynamo FC at TQL Stadium. Here are five things to know going into the season.
1. Attacking trio is back
Forwards Brenner Souza da Silva and Brandon Vazquez and midfielder Luciano Acosta amassed together a total of 46 goals and 33 assists in 2022 – the best of any attacking trio in the league – and the group is back for another go this season.
Repeating that level of success won’t be easy. Brenner and Vazquez each tallied 18 goals in breakout seasons for both, and Acosta’s 10 goals and 19 assists were a career best as well, even better than his 2018 campaign with D.C. United that nearly got him a transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. Defenses know what to expect from them now, but that chemistry they developed together is even stronger.
The big question is how long the trio is together. Brenner was close to a move to Nottingham Forest at the close of the transfer window in England but the parties couldn’t reach a deal, and it’s expected more opportunities will come this summer. If that’s the case, he’s likely gone. Vazquez, who made his U.S. men’s national team debut in January, also has drawn interest from outside, and Acosta is entering the final year of his contract and already looking elsewhere in case an extension doesn’t get done.
“I think I’m gonna try to not think about what everybody else is gonna be expecting from me now,” Vazquez said. “I think I’m just going to come in with the same mentality that I did (last) year and try to maintain and yeah, hopefully, be able to achieve the same things with his team and hopefully even better.”
2. Defensive reinforcements
FCC gave up 74 goals in 2021 and got that down to 56 goals allowed in 2022, but those numbers were greatly helped last year when defensive midfielder Obinna Nwobodo and center back Matt Miazga arrived. Now the Orange and Blue are hoping new additions Santiago Arias, at right wingback, and Yerson Mosquera, a Wolverhampton loanee center back, help further shore up the back line.
Alvaro Barreal returns at left wingback, where he remains a bit of a defensive liability as a natural winger, but he should be much improved now coming into the season with clarity on his role and having a better understanding of the position. Mosquera’s speed should help provide more cover when Barreal is caught up in the attack in a transition situation.
Goalkeeper Roman Celentano also should be improved in his second year in the league.
3. Depth on the bench
FCC got just one goal from a substitute last year, but will need more contributions from the bench in 2023.
Sergio Santos could be the super-sub to improve those stats, as a speedy and physical forward that can change the game. He didn’t score in his 10 appearances last season, but drew penalties and had the assist to Vazquez’s game-winner in the playoff victory at New York Red Bulls and will be looking for more contributions this season. To do that, he just needs to stay healthy. He can also serve as a spot starter if Brenner or Vazquez need a break or aren’t available.
FCC’s bench, otherwise, is a bit younger this season with the addition of 15-year-old Stiven Jimenez and 20-year-old Marco Angulo. Both are box-to-box midfielders who could also contribute to the attack.
4. Managing expectations
What a difference a year makes.
After a trio of last-place finishes the first three seasons, no one expected FCC to even push for the playoffs last year in Noonan’s first season. He had much the same roster from a bad 2021 season, thanks to guaranteed contracts, and general manager Chris Albright didn’t have much flexibility with the salary cap to make a lot of changes.
Noonan and his staff got the most out of his players through formation changes and building trust in what he was doing, and with so many of the starters back (likely about nine of the 11), that should be even better this season.
A panel of experts for MLSSoccer.com predicted FC Cincinnati to finish second in the Eastern Conference behind defending conference champion Philadelphia, and the playoffs are no longer a lofty goal but an expectation. The new playoff format makes it easier to get in with nine teams from each conference qualifying (62 percent of the teams), but FCC has goals of securing a higher seed this season.
“Ultimately, we have to step on the field ready to go,” said defender Nick Hagglund, a graduate of Lakota West High School. “There’s no moral victories. People are gonna come and switch their lineups on us. They know exactly what kind of dogfight they’re gonna get into this year. There’s going to be a target on our backs. We’re gonna get the best teams out there. They’re gonna come in and look to take some away from us.”
5. How to watch games
For those wanting to watch matches on TV this year will need a subscription to MLS Season Pass through the Apple TV app. The league sold its broadcast rights to Apple on a 10-year deal worth $2.5 billion, and matches will no longer air on Star64 or ESPN+.
A subscription costs $14.99 a month or $99 a year, though Apple TV+ subscribers get a discount. T-Mobile customers can get a complimentary code, available until 4:59 a.m. March 14. Fans can access all opening weekend games for free as a chance to preview the service before purchasing.
Those who are attending games live at TQL Stadium are encouraged to show up early for new pre-game rituals to help provide a better atmosphere for the home team as players are still warming up. Season and individual ticket sales are up from last year, according to Co-CEO Jeff Berding.