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 FC Cincinnati

On a Night That Required Heroics, FC Cincinnati Had Ample Heroes Step Up

June 16, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
FC Cincinnati News Release

There was a moment Saturday night where it looked like FC Cincinnati would have to endure the four-hour flight back to the Queen City with a devastating loss in hand on multiple fronts. However brief, however drastic a defeat at the hands of last place San Jose Earthquakes would feel, for a period of close to 10 minutes in the second half Saturday night it felt like the walls were collapsing, the sky was falling, and the enemy was at the castle doors waiting for their moment to burn down the keep.

San Jose had sandwiched two goals around what appeared to be a devastating injury to FC Cincinnati star and 2023 MLS Defender of the Year Matt Miazga and had all the momentum going forward. Miazga was forced to exit the field on a stretcher and was later transported to a local hospital for evaluation on what Pat Noonan called a "leg contusion." So, after battling for 53 minutes to earn a lead thanks to an excellently read interception and finish from Pavel Bucha who scored his first goal for The Orange and Blue, the lead evaporated and the often praised back line already without Miles Robinson thanks to international duty was now without another of its leading men.

It was Ocean's 11, but without Rusty and Danny. The Justice League without Clark and Bruce. The Grateful Dead without Jerry and Bob. And now down a goal with 20ish minutes to play, the rest of the crew had to finish the job.

Stopping the momentum was one thing. Punching back would be a whole other at this point in the match.

But the Oceans crew had Linus and Basher. The JLA have Barry and Arthur. The Grateful Dead have John (Mayer, allegedly). FCC have Yuya Kubo and Luciano Acosta...and Pavel Bucha and Obinna Nwobodo and Kipp Keller and DeAndre Yedlin and Ian Murphy and and and...

Poor comparisons aside -- it's probably unfair to compare Lucho to the lower rate heroes of DC Comics and Jam Band lore - The Orange and Blue needed its heroes Saturday night in San Jose, California and more than a few were ready to step up to the call and fight back.

"The response was good," FCC Head Coach Pat Noonan said postgame. "There were obviously enough good things in the second half as a group that even on nights where we're not at our best, we can still make plays to win a game.

"I think we won the game because of the guys that came on the field (as subs). They gave us quality, composure and allowed us to keep the ball, get to goal and score."

It was a combined performance late. Noonan would go on to mention an array of FCC players who he felt changed the complexion of the game. He cited DeAndre Yedlin as one of the best starters on the field. He mentioned Gerardo "Dado" Valenzuela's ability to combine with Acosta and help the MVP when he was more fatigued late in the game and for being able to settle down the ball in the midfield when things were erratic. He mentioned Kipp Keller stepping in and making stops on defense. Yamil Asad's defensive presence while learning a new position and covering an excellent attacker in Espinoza. Bret Halsey in his limited minutes by being able to impact the match.

Everyone played a part.

"Credit to those guys," Noonan said. "They were, I think, the reason that we're talking about a victory tonight."

In the first half, though, it was Pavel Bucha and Obinna Nwobodo who stole the show. Both of whom Noonan praised most postgame saying that he told the locker room at halftime that the team would be in a worse position if those two men weren't out there performing at such a high level. The two midfielders, occupying the double-pivot position in the 5-2-1-2 formation, controlled play through the middle of the field in all phases and both stymied the San Jose offense while also pushing play forward and being threatening on offense. It was, in some ways, a masterclass of box-to-box performance that allowed FCC to keep a clean scoreline headed into half time.

Bucha then put the cherry on top with his goal scoring effort. A long-awaited reward for seasons worth of quality performances.

"What I said at halftime was 'it was a good thing that Pavel and Obi were on the field, because the game could have looked a lot worse without the way they performed,'" Noonan added. "So I mentioned the subs being the reason that we were able to win a game. The reason it got to that in the late stages of the game was because of how they performed."

"(Bucha)'s been pushing hard to contribute in terms of goals and assists, and tonight to see him score the goal on top of a really strong performance defensively was nice to see. He was along with (Obi Nwobodo) I thought our two best starters on the field."

So after the double pivot partnership got FCC to the late stages it was Yuya Kubo and Luciano Acosta who stepped up next, combining for three goals in nine minutes to earn the tied for fourth fastest hat-trick in MLS history and the third hat-trick in club history. Luciano Acosta's three assist milestone was also just the third in club history, joining himself and Brenner in the three-assist club.

Kubo, who came on in the 64 minute as a substitute had a clear understanding of how he was going to make an impact, and (unlike some of the night's heroes, more on this later) has vast experience in the starring role he was called upon to fill.

"I didn't expect three goals, so I'm surprised but I am so happy," Kubo said. "Before I came onto the pitch we talked about how there would be space for me to attack in behind, so when I saw Lucho had the ball I knew where to be so he could find me."

The goals Kubo scored came fast and furious. Two of them looked very similar, with that 'get in behind' mentality clearly defined by the highlight. But the second of three goals, the one that would eventually stand as the match winner, was the result of a striker's instinct telling him where to be and having the wherewithal - and the quality -- to finish off the play.

"Yuya was obviously the standout performance. He was exceptional," Noonan said on Kubo. "Even aside from the goals. His movement and how he allowed our group to move up the field. I thought he did a really good job."

After the match winner came, but before the insurance fourth goal was secured, San Jose didn't roll over. Of all the things San Jose is and proves to be, it's offensively gifted. Newly acquired DP Hernan Lopez and longtime Quake Christian Espinoza flashed their skills with two goals and weren't settling for a loss yet. And with Miazga out now, the sharks were circling.

In steps Keller to man the center position of the three-man back line, a spot few others have been charged with playing since Miazga joined the club in 2022. A pivotal spot in the FC Cincinnati defense given the responsibilities of not only defending, but vocalizing and assisting other defenders, midfielders and forwards in the defensive effort.

"It felt good to get into the game but that's never the way you want it to happen.

It's not a spot unfamiliar in concept to the defender who joined FCC this offseason. In training Keller is often trusted to play any defensive position because of his versatility but in a match it was the first time he had been called upon to do so. Fortunately for FCC, Noonan and other club leaders had the foresight to send Keller on an assignment to the MLS NEXT Pro team FC Cincinnati 2 to gain match sharpness during the long layoff between matches.

Position aside, FCC continued to need to tinker. Joining Keller was Ian Murphy -- whose consistency and poise helped stabilize things -- and DeAndre Yedlin, who all talent aside, to this point had been featured at the center back position just once this year. It was on this strange and unlikely combination of defenders to see out the match and secure three points.

And they did not break, nor did they bend. Each in the final 10 minutes plus 11 minutes of stoppage time, had signature moments of defense that helped seal the victory. Despite all sorts of pressure, looking to pounce because of a perceived weakness or crack in the armor, FCC saw out the match with little drama to speak of.

The house did not burn down, nor did the vandals storm the castle walls. Yuya Kubo, Luciano Acosta and the rest of The Orange and Blue saw the drama, saw the adversity, and didn't blink.

It is possible that the emotions, the anxieties, prescribed in the first paragraph of this tale were never felt by the 17 men in Canvas kits. Only by those watching from the stands at PayPal Park and all those at home watching anywhere in the world on MLS Season Pass. Conceding twice and surrendering a hard-earned lead, frustrating yes. But after that first goal, and when their teammate and an emotional leader went down, FCC players were left with less information than anyone watching at home or within reach of a cell phone.

Some, like Yuya Kubo, were too busy preparing for what came next and reviewing information as to how to best bring the game back level. Others like Kipp Keller, busy on the sidelines were preparing to come into the match and say they have the chance to see the injury nor its aftermath so didn't process the information until well after the final whistle. Everyone returned to the focus of playing the match while those like this writer and others online had to sit and watch the replay over and over and over again of a clearly suffering Matt Miazga being stretchered off the field. Some only learned of Miazga's transport to the local hospital from the press conference where Noonan disclosed the information for the first time.

There was obviously worry and concern for their teammate and friend. But there was little time to lose focus, a game was still in the balance.

"I think at first for a little bit it did," Keller said of the emotional hurdle an injury like Miazga's could have on the group. You see them calling for the medical guys and I think it's just. You want him on the field. He's a great leader and brings a voice.

"But the attention turns so quickly back to the game when things restart that you have to kind of refocus. So I think guys just tried to step up and fill that role as much as we could, even though we won't be able to. But we just hope he's alright."

"It was good to win it for Matt. We wanted to fight for him," Kubo added. "But when it happened I didn't know or see what happened, I was just getting ready to come on so I couldn't see and we didn't know. So I just had to focus on making sure I was ready to help."

FC Cincinnati needed heroic efforts on Saturday night, and just because FCC players (from role players to stars to MVPs) perhaps didn't realize they were being heroes, it doesn't make those acts any less heroic.

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