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 FC Cincinnati

On Short Rest and with Depth Tested, FC Cincinnati Thrive in Performance to Remember

May 19, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
FC Cincinnati News Release

Everyone on the field was facing the same circumstances. It was the third game in eight days, and the players were battered and bruised from the midweek match. They were looking to get out of the Saturday night matchup healthy and (ideally) three points richer.

FC Cincinnati had the advantage, playing at home both times this week and never leaving the state of Ohio in this three-match week. Still, both clubs had changes to the lineup. Miles Robinson sat out for the first time this season, Corey Baird, Alvas Powell and DeAndre Yedlin remained out with injuries, and with the short week, some roster flexibility was needed to keep everyone healthy as Bret Halsey and Dado Valenzuela made the start to add significant youth to the XI.

But despite that rotation and fatigue that the last week had inflicted, FCC dominated play in all three phases to win their MLS club-record sixth straight victory in imposing fashion. The Orange and Blue scored three times for the first time in 2024 league play. Luciano Acosta dazzled, scoring the opening goal and then providing the assists on the final two goals. Yuya Kubo scored his fourth goal of the season while announcing he and Mrs. Kubo were expecting, and Nick Hagglund played his first full 90-minute match in over six months.

It was, in short, a joyous night at TQL Stadium for FC Cincinnati.

"I really don't want to because I think these guys were really, really good tonight," FC Cincinnati Head Coach Pat Noonan said when asked if there were any negatives to nitpick about the game. "It's been a challenging week, and St. Louis had the same challenging week, so it's not like we had less rest. But I just think the way we played tonight, with the ball, you know, how quick we were moving it, how we were able to play out of pressure and attack, I was really pleased with that against a team that certainly knows how to defend against the ball."

"For us to come out and play that way, I was really, really pleased with the performance and outcome, because I thought that was well deserved. And now we get to enjoy a couple of days to recover."

In a complete performance by all, there were plenty of candidates for man of the match, but the 2023 MLS MVP took home the honor. Acosta once again brought the magic needed to open the scoring but did so by frustrating St. Louis CITY SC midfielder Celio Pompeau into a foul in the box, which awarded FCC its first PK chance of the season. A chance that Acosta wasted no time slotting into the back of the net for his seventh goal of the season and club-record eighth straight game with a goal contribution.

Acosta was the driver for the other goals, springing Yuya Kubo for his goal and crossing a pass to Sergio Santos for an open tap-in. An impossibly typical night for the league's most dominant and consistent attacking midfielder. But what sparked inspiration from teammates and coaches was his commitment to the other side of the ball.

"He consistently impacts the scoreline in a positive way for us. But I'm watching him work tonight, and it just felt like he wanted to send a different type of message with how he worked on the defensive side of the ball," Noonan said of his captain. "Was it every single play? No, but it was when it mattered."

"He just senses the right time to know when to defend, how to defend, to be that frontline of pressure that we look for and move the ball and guide the ball in certain ways. In the second half, he simplified some things that really allowed us to move to goal in an efficient way. So the message that he was sending tonight wasn't just with production, it was with effort. And off the field, he just continues to grow as a captain and as a leader, and that's really impressive to see his growth and him continuing to mature as a player and as a person."

The MVP performed like an MVP. That's a great start to the evening, but hardly the full picture.

Nick Hagglund, who was tabbed for the start, stepped up in a major way on the right side of the field. In his two appearances this season, returning to action after undergoing surgery at the end of 2023 that kept him off the field, Hagglund joked that he had gone "45 minutes and nearly 45 minutes." But on Saturday night, St. Louis CITY SC's star striker, Klauss, clearly felt Hagglund was someone he could exploit, and the Cincinnati native didn't give him an inch.

"We knew that with their style of play, they want to be physical and they want to hit the ball in behind, so I knew for me and (Matt Miazga) it was gonna be important to get into Klauss and Aidineran early," Hagglund said. "I think there's things that we could do even better and be more you know, punishers in the end...but things are coming together nicely and I think the sky's the limit for this team."

Klauss hugged Hagglund like a shadow while Adineran focused on Miazga and Ian Murphy more centrally. The physical striker from Brazil, who came to MLS after stints in the Belgian top-flight and German Bundesliga, is well known for using his strength and size to bully weaker or less courageous center backs, particularly in aerial duels and forward runs. But from the opening whistle, Hagglund pushed back on the striker's attempts and, on more than one occasion, made sure to confront Klauss and let him know that wouldn't fly.

Hagglund won three of six aerial duels, more than any player on FCC that night and competed for 90 minutes, which became important late in the game. Pat Noonan noted that Hagglund's ability to stay in and compete allowed them to be cautious with Ian Murphy, who eventually exited, with Kipp Keller coming on as a substitute due to a knock suffered late in the match.

"I wasn't sure I was gonna ever get 90 again to be honest," Hagglund laughed in the locker room postgame. "Just kidding, but honestly, the first two performances I made it to almost halftime in one and halftime of the other so it was nice to get the form."

"Very strong, he didn't look like a player that hasn't played a 90 minute game in five, six months," Noonan said of Hagglund. "He was exceptional in the aerial duels, I thought his passing was clean. He saw things before the pressure got to him and I thought in terms of his fitness, it didn't look to be a problem."

"Nick, I think, pushed in a really good way. Klauss is an outstanding player, and I thought he did a really good job to be physical on him. You know, (Klauss) a nine that knows how to use his body even against bigger defenders like Nick and you've got to be able to do it without fouling, without attackers getting an advantage and being able to comfortably play into their midfield and that's where I think Nick is really strong for our group in the backline. It's disrupting plays and allowing us to get advantages in those moments."

Hagglund (and later Keller) came in and added to the defensive core without the club missing a step, which was, in a capsule, exactly why FCC has the best defense in MLS this season. One of the best defenders in the league, Miles Robinson, can be given the night off as a precaution, and the defense doesn't lose a step.

The lone down moment came in one of, if not the most, uncharacteristic moments in club history from one of the most reliable players in MLS. In the 54 minute, Matt Miaza turned and sent a pacey pass back to the keeper to play it out of the back. The only problem was Roman Celentano wasn't there to receive the pass and couldn't catch up to stop the ball from rolling into the back of the net.

It was so odd, so uncharacteristic, that once Miazga lifted his head from his hands in horror to apologize, Celentano just looked back at the defender and shrugged it all off, Giving Miazga a casual, "Don't worry about it," waving.

"I feel like everyone did a great job. Everyone put in a shift tonight," Roman Celentano said about the overall performance. "We game planned well for what they were going to be and were calling it out...they had really no chances so we had to put one in our net for them."

The locker room attitude was obviously light and joyous, assuredly because the third goal secured the final result. But the game could have hung in the balance. The mistake energized St. Louis, and for a time, it appeared the visitors may have gotten the luck and belief they needed to push forward for the win.

But Celentano wasn't worried.

"(Stuff) happens," Celentano said. "There's gonna be times where stuff just doesn't go to plan, and some crazy thing happens. I'll take that every once in a while if that means that we play like we did the last...however many games where we were not giving up chances."

"It doesn't faze us. Like, if you saw how we responded right after that. Matt's playing lockdown defense again, and we scored another goal. So, it sucks. It happened. But you have to learn how to bounce back...and the team responded really well."

By all accounts, it was a night to be proud of for FC Cincinnati. And while Pat Noonan and all the team leaders have acknowledged that you can't get too high and you can't get too low, Saturday was a night worth building off of and remembering. It is easier to learn after a win, and with how FCC performed - beyond the actual outcome, just how they played in those 90 minutes - Saturday's win was a reminder to the players, fans and the rest of the league:

FC Cincinnati is a top team...and they haven't reached their final form yet.

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