By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 19, 2023) US Soccer Players – They don’t hand out trophies for topping the MLS standings in May. That won’t stop FC Cincinnati and its fans from feeling pretty good about being in 1st-place nearly 40 percent through the 2023 MLS regular season schedule.
A 3-0 win over Montreal on Wednesday night, an emphatic, dominant performance that featured goals from two of the club’s biggest stars, vaulted Cincinnati over the idle New England Revolution and into the top spot in Major League Soccer’s combined standings. There’s a long way to go, but the achievement can only encourage belief in Cincinnati.
“Excellent performance. That was probably our strongest overall in every way,” Noonan said during his postgame comments.
That’s saying something for a team that won enough games to make itself Supporters’ Shield co-leaders going into the match.
Cincinnati’s three-goal output was somewhat unusual for the club this season. It was just the fifth time FCC scored more than once in 13 matches. It was also the first time in 2023 that FC Cincinnati won a game by more than a single goal.
The evolution of the team under Noonan is best exemplified by a dramatically improved defense. Last year Cincinnati made the postseason for the first time in its history thanks to a prolific attack that included two different 18-goal scorers, Brandon Vazquez and Brenner, and an MVP-caliber campaign from creator Luciano Acosta.
Anchored as part of the club’s three-center back setup crucial to the defensive improvement is US international Matt Miazga. Miazga’s arrival in the summer window in 2022 made an immediate difference in the club’s ability to prevent goals. His presence is key to the club’s new identity as a defensive powerhouse.
In the ten regular season games Miazga played last season, FCC conceded 13 goals compared to the 43 goals given up in 24 games before his arrival. The club has conceded 12 goals in 12 matches this season, a total that would be more impressive if not for an aberrant 5-1 defeat to St Louis away from home in mid-May.
As evidenced by the goal output and the margins of victory, points are coming because Cincinnati is never out of games this season. With attacking personnel that is largely unchanged from last year’s high-scoring outfit, the chances are FCC will start to find more goals. The scary implication for the rest of MLS is that Cincinnati is still playing well below its ceiling.
Vazquez’s third goal of the season provided the exclamation point on the day as FCC pulled away from Montreal. It came directly from the approach Noonan has drilled his team to use, one that has been particularly effective in front of the home fans at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati.
Midfielder Obinna Nwobodo, a 2022 summer acquisition who ranks among the league’s top players for tackles and interceptions, recovered the ball in Montreal’s defensive end and sprung Vazquez on goal. Fresh off his game-clinching goal, the US international had plenty to say about the club’s performance on Wednesday and the confidence coursing through the team.
“I think this team’s been so tight-knit this season,” Vazquez said on MLS 360. “The chemistry between everybody has been incredible. Every time we step onto the pitch everyone does their role in an extraordinary way. Everybody is working extremely hard and we have a championship in sight.”
Cincinnati ended Montreal’s six-game winning streak across all competitions with Dominique Badji partnering Vazquez. On a different night, the veteran MLS forward’s work might have resulted in a goal of his own. With Brenner set to leave FCC for Udinese in Italy when the European transfer window opens this summer, the club knows it will have to make up for his lost production in the latter part of the season.
A significant part of FCC’s charge to the top spot has been its work to turn TQL Stadium into a fortress. Wednesday night’s win was Cincinnati’s seventh consecutive victory at home to start the season, a mark that ties FCC with three other clubs for the best home start in the league’s post-shootout history. To make that streak eight and to set a new mark, Cincinnati will need to beat their chief rival at TQL Stadium on Saturday.
The Columbus Crew will visit their Ohio neighbors for a grudge match that ranks among the most intense in MLS. The first edition of the clash in 2023 is all the more interesting because of Cincinnati’s climb into the league’s elite.
For the first three years of the matchup, the game represented little more than a battle for bragging rights. With FCC atop the standings and Columbus riding the play of rising midfield talent Aidan Morris, veteran Darlington Nagbe, and winter addition Christian Ramirez, Saturday’s game feels like the biggest one to date.
FC Cincinnati finished in last place just two years ago. Now the club has a claim to being the best team in MLS a dozen games into the 2023 season. Even though they don’t hand out trophies in May, that’s something to appreciate.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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