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South American Magic Sparks FC Cincinnati to Victory But Concern Bubbles Under the Surface in 4-3 Winning Affair

June 20, 2024 - Major League Soccer (MLS)
FC Cincinnati News Release

CINCINNATI - If you couldn't believe your eyes when seeing Luca Orellano launch a shot from a step inside the halfway mark that curled in under the bar and over the goalkeeper's hand for an instant Goal of the Year candidate and certified ESPN Top 10 moment...

You and Luca Orellano have something in common.

If you were unsure if Orellano meant to do that but were amazed anyway at the outcome. You and Luciano Acosta also have something in common.

It was pure magic at TQL Stadium. For each goal, from the first to the final finish, The Orange and Blue used every trick in the book and then some Wednesday over Philadelphia Union 4-3, scoring at the death on a final act by Luciano Acosta to seal the victory after seemingly having the win stolen 10 minutes prior when Philly found an equalizer just as stoppage time was being announced.

Acosta's goal was only one of three on the night that displayed signs of wizardry. The first was one of his own, a perfectly placed assist on a lofted pass that Kevin Kelsy got just enough of his head to score the game's opening goal. A type of goal the South American duo have come to make routine in short order as this is the third Kelsy header that Acosta has assisted on of Kelsy's four goals.

Next came a penalty kick conversion from Acosta. Which, while not being as magical as the three others on the night, was converted with ease and earned Acosta his eighth goal of the season.

Then came a wonder goal from Luca Orellano, who spotted Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Oliver Semmle well off his line and dared to put a shot on net from long range. The shot wasn't a floater or a knuckleball that danced over the keeper; it was as firm as Acosta's penalty kick earlier in the half and direct as any attempt on the night. It was unmistakably a shot, with pace, that was perfectly placed.

Initially, Orellano says, he didn't know the ball went in.

"I didn't know initially," Orellano said from the FCC locker room. "I didn't know if it had landed in the goal or if it had landed just outside. Until I looked at Lucho who was celebrating like it was a goal, that's when I knew."

Orellano's magic surprised even himself. And it certainly surprised his teammates. DeAndre Yedlin said he was initially frustrated with Orellano when he saw the attempt. With the heat leaving players exhausted and FCC knowing they needed to possess the ball to have their best chance at winning, the shot looked like a waste. But when he saw the keeper scrambling and the ball roll through the back of the net, he just put his hands on his head and said, "Wow."

Pavel Bucha, who was credited with an assist on the goal for the pass that gave Orellano the ball, may have put it best, though:

"I just made the pass; he made the magic."

In the final moments, Acosta had what can only be described as another signature goal in the legacy of Luciano Acosta's goals. The 2023 MLS MVP danced through multiple defenders, faking shots and moving through legs to get a clean look on net. Eventually, he slid a shot through the forest of defenders looking to block his shot and just out of reach of the goalkeeper to secure the victory.

But beneath the magic, the energy, belief and perseverance that saw The Orange and Blue push through a real feel weather index of 99 degrees Fahrenheit heat and a starting XI that would test the club's depth, something concerning was bubbling under the surface.

"A pretty wild affair," FCC Head Coach Pat Noonan said in an opening statement from his press conference post-game. "We saved it until the end with Lucho coming up with some of his magic. But I'm certainly pleased with the result. How it got there was...some good, some bad. I think you can see some of the challenges with some of the new combinations on the back line, as well as fatigue and a lack of match fitness under these conditions. So, a lot to dissect and hopefully improve on, certainly on the defensive side of the ball."

The magic FCC's goal scorers put together was only celebrated because of the outcome. An undeniably impressive feat, given that The Orange and Blue continue to find ways to win games in new and remarkable ways. But taking the lead three times before the eventual winner, and conceding three times and allowing Philadelphia back into the game made the magic necessary to end the night with a positive result. Otherwise, all the magic FCC conjured up may have been lost in the history of any other 3-3 or 2-2 or even 1-1 draw.

It's the third time in recent memory FCC have played to a frantic finish and the offense has outshined the defense. A startling and ironic trend for a club once praised for the club who, at one point this season, was praised for its ability to keep opponents off the scoresheet but struggled to find their own goals.

"We need to get better defensively," Noonan said plainly. "We gave up another set piece goal today, so that's been a little bit of a theme. Today, it was defending crosses that had us concede two other goals. We'll continue to look at the best combination of guys to help us, from the front line to the back line, to be better defensively because I think right now, with how we're creating chances, that hasn't been a concern."

Three goals, all looking somewhat similar, were conceded by FC Cincinnati on Wednesday night. Some version of a cross clearly through the box that went uncleared. Two were chips that an initial header from a Philadelphia player headed to a more central location across the goal was tapped in by an open attacker. The third was a corner kick that sailed over the initial defense and was left for a serging Union member to similarly score on.

In some ways, it's almost comforting that all three goals are similar. At the very least, the problem is consistent and easily identifiable. But as any expert in their field would tell you, fixing any problem is likely easier said than done. But still, a thought that remains.

It's impossible to ignore some of the primary sources of FCC's defensive pain as the club looks to manage an unspecified period without either Miles Robinson or Matt Miazga. Robinson, away on international duty for a yet unspecified time, and Miazga's injury having no update as of the end of the match, FCC's defensive depth is being tested in a serious way. And with Kipp Keller and Nick Hagglund not at full 90-minute fitness yet, FCC found itself mixing and matching defensive combinations all night to accommodate for injury and energy.

"You could see the fitness issues with Kipp (Keller) and a little bit with Nick (Hagglund) there," Noonan said. "(Hagglund) was fatiguing, and my concern was taking him off with set pieces, but we also needed to make sure that we had fresh bodies to take care of the other parts of the game. We shuffled things around."

Keller, making a start as the central defender in the backline trio of center-backs, was forced to exit with what Noonan confirmed were cramps in the moments after Orellano's goalazo. Many in the stadium have copped to missing the goal because they were worried about Keller going down in the box and Roman Celentano trying to tend to the young defender. Hagglund came off 12 minutes later as the veteran Cincinnati native continues to build fitness back to 100% after hamstring surgery in the offseason.

Alvas Powell and DeAndre Yedlin, both players with experience and training in the back three, were forced into action at the center back position. Both are traditional fullbacks or wingbacks who would be playing out of position.

"DeAndre's fitness is there. I feel comfortable with him being on the left. Just his experience, being able to move the ball the right way, being able to defend the right way, communicate," Noonan said. "Alvas (Powell) did an excellent job coming in on the right side of the three. He's played that role previously, so that probably helped him to step in and have a level of comfort to play important minutes, strong minutes. "

"But we're going to continue to have to look at different combinations, based on fitness, based on a quick turnaround, and guys that are going to need to recover now and play a reserve role just based on what these last four days have looked like. I think that will be the biggest challenge."

Replacing Miazga and Robinson simply isn't going to happen overnight. They are world-class defenders who are considered two of the best players at their position in MLS for a reason, and replacing what they bring is impossibly difficult.

Until then, Luciano Acosta and company's magic-making ability will have to do. In a flip from a common phrase in conversations around the team when the season kicked off, the offense will have to carry the defense while it sorts itself out and improves.

It's a safe bet, given that FC Cincinnati has found the ingredients for success on the field time and time again, regardless of the path in front of them. If this club, if these players have shown anything these past few months, it's that they have the confidence, determination and belief that they can find a path forward to win, no matter how long the odds seem.

"We knew it was going to be difficult, so I'm just pleased that conceding a third goal didn't affect the group in a way where we couldn't find a winner," Noonan said. "That part is certainly a positive."

"You want confidence in all your players, all the time. And it comes out in different ways," Noonan said. "I want these guys to think about being creative and taking chances in a good way...Confident players make big plays."

Wednesday night, The Orange and Blue made big plays. Big, magical plays.

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