So many conflicting thoughts and emotions revolving around a contest of association football to be played Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. in Cincinnati.
From the perspective of loyal supporters and in regard to the host team: Are we the top team, legitimately competing for honors in multiple competitions, that was on display for the entirety of this 2023 campaign? Or, have we overnight, been transformed to hapless throwbacks to toothless attacks and a Kleenex defense that subjected the fanbase to its most unpleasant experience of the past two seasons in dropping a 3-0 decision to Columbus on Sunday evening?
Or could there be nuances to both the superlative season forged so far this year by Pat Noonan’s team and the abysmal defeat in the Hell is Real derby?
With the team is still in a strong position in MLS despite Sunday’s loss (FCC remains seven points ahead of St. Louis with 10 regular season matches remaining), there’s no problem focusing on the U.S. Open Cup semifinal Wednesday vs. Inter Miami. Just two wins away, the club’s first trophy is very much in reach.
But in no way, shape or form will that be the narrative for Wednesday night’s game when it comes to national media. Everything will be, as it has been for more than a month now, about the greatest soccer player of all time, Lionel Messi. Messi the Conquering Hero. Messi the Savior. Messi the Hope for all of Western civilization. Messi, MESSI, MESSSSSIIIIIIII!!!!!
Before I go on, it’s only fair to properly recognize that you couldn’t write a better script for Lionel Messi to enter the world of American soccer. He comes in having led Argentina to its first FIFA World Cup championship since 1986, playing such a vital role in his country’s win over France at Qatar 2022. So, not a has-been trying to get a final payday, but a top, top performer despite being 36.
He comes with a huge amount of fanfare, his contract involving percentages both from Apple TV and Adidas, making it clear the league’s marketing presence is going to be built around him.
Then, he steps into a dismal Inter Miami team and suddenly it’s totally reinvigorated, sweeping to win the inaugural Leagues Cup behind 10 goals in seven games (not including a couple of post-match penalty kick scores). You wanted flair, drama and fireworks? You got them all with Messi during that initial entry into the game.
On the other hand, for those of us who have been schlepping for soccer in America for some time, there is more than a little gall in the manner of the spotlight shining on Messi and only Messi. Perhaps there’s no better example of how Messi’s narrative runs across the path of someone else’s narrative than right here in Over The Rhine and FC Cincinnati.
The team we love has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of wooden spoon drudgery, soaring in a season and a half to a commanding spot in the table, recording 15 wins against just three losses and advancing to the semifinals of the oldest American Cup competition. The team has been creating pure magic behind the talismanic efforts of Luciano Acosta and his band of all-stars, including Brandon Vazquez, Alvaro Barreal, Obinna Nwobodo, Matt Miazga and Yerson Mosquera.
But now, that shining narrative faces dark storm clouds as a trophy within reach is fronted with a major roadblock. Metaphorically speaking, Sunday’s poor performance vs. Columbus counts as a flat tire for the vehicle trying to navigate said roadblock. In short, Acosta and company need to correct things quickly if they don’t wish to be another notch on Messi’s boot. Miazga returns from suspension and, hopefully, Mosquera is back from injury. The team will have the disadvantage of 24 hours shorter rest than Miami. There also appears to be an issue of the front three attackers not being on the same song sheet as new signing Aaron Boupendza tries to blend in with Acosta and Vazquez.
This will seem cliché of me, but I really do think a big part of what determines Wednesday’s outcome is the crowd at TQL Stadium. Let me explain using a personal reference.
I started playing soccer in a small farm town in Northwest Ohio. My coach was a priest from Cincinnati, and all our references to local soccer at any kind of good level were from Cincinnati. I caught the bug not only for playing but for coaching and just being a fanatic for the game. When MLS began, I was a regular attendee of matches in places I lived, including Washington, DC, Los Angeles and even near Columbus (sorry).
At the same time, I was a huge fan of the game overseas and fell in love with Liverpool FC upon my first visit to Anfield in 1998. It was the atmosphere there that really hooked me, the way a crowd could spiritually be one with a team of players. That’s what I experienced at Liverpool and why I still love that place and that club.
Now I’ve wanted to see soccer take its place in the Pantheon of American sports for a long time, and to me, one of the missing pieces in MLS for a long time was the relative lack of passion among fan bases. MLS spun its wheels for too long trying to get casual fans and youth soccer parents to become hooked on the game. Things started to look and sound better when the millennials started coming to games, but I felt like we hadn’t reached a top soccer atmosphere in this country until what took place with FCC.
There was a quantitative, but especially qualitative look, feel and sound to crowds at Nippert Stadium and now TQL Stadium. If I go to a game there I can close my eyes and feel like I’m in Argentina or England (and I admit I’ve fallen in love with the club and this team). This crowd has the capability to impact a match in favor of the team it supports. It’s not a place opposing teams and players should relish visiting.
Which brings us back to Wednesday. There’s never been a player as good as Messi come to TQL. He has taken this last-placed team in MLS and made them look very hard to beat. But, in America at least, the Messi-led Inter Miami team hasn’t come to a place like Cincinnati to play a match. This crowd has the ability to make FCC much harder to play against, and this team really could use the boost from such support.
I’ve seen this take place before. In May of 2019, Liverpool lost the first leg of the Champions League semifinal at Barcelona 3-0 to Messi and friends. Liverpool appeared to be out of the competition as the second leg approached, but the crowd at Anfield roared even louder than normal, and the Reds stormed back to beat Messi and Barca 4-0, 4-3 on aggregate. Every single player credited the crowd with making a huge difference in the game. I know FCC isn’t Liverpool, but the TQL crowd I believe is the closest thing an American soccer audience can offer (and the only real difference is the size of the stadium). FCC home games are an event to be treasured. Don’t write the home team off.
So again, multiple narratives come together Wednesday in Over-the-Rhine. We could see a storybook season reclaimed, a Hollywood narrative sustained or short-circuited and a community’s love for its team put on display before the rest of the soccer world (and with Messi involved, it really will be the world watching).
There’s a lot on the line. Let’s hope players and fans alike are up to the occasion.