“Decision Day” is usually a white-knuckle day where those on the edge are nervously checking the results. There was no such feel in the air about TQL Stadium, but FC Cincinnati and Atlanta United still provided a physical, entertaining matchup that left both teams looking to improve for the MLS Cup playoffs.
FC Cincinnati twice found themselves down in the first half after goals from Giorgos Giakoumakis, only to storm back twice with goals by Dom Badji and Luciano Acosta. The final regular-season match ends with a 2-2 draw between playoff-bound squads.
While there was not much in play for Cincinnati (20-9-5, 69 pts.) and their postseason, the squad still had the opportunity to surpass 70 points in a season, something done only three times in the modern MLS era (New York Red Bulls in 2018, New England Revolution in 2021, LAFC in 2022). Atlanta (13-12-9, 51 pts.) needed a win to position themselves as high as a #5 seed in the Eastern Conference, but could not fall further than #7.
Even though FCC had little to gain in playing a strong Starting XI, much of the lineup involved regular starters, save for a few notable absences. Forward Aaron Boupendza did not return from his international duty with Gabon on time and was held out of the lineup. Post-match, head coach Pat Noonan noted that the team “will have discussions internally in the next 24 hours regarding moving forward.”
Defender Santiago Arias was held out after receiving a knock during his own work with the Columbian national team.
Much of Atlanta’s Starting XI was unchanged from their last 1-1 draw against Columbus. However, defender Brooks Lennon started on the bench, replaced by Ronald Hernandez. Forwards Machop Choi and Tyler Wolff were still held out, recovering from leg injuries.
If you wanted action in a match that meant little in the standings, you got it in the first half.
Atlanta uncorked the champagne early with a tic-tac-toe play in the 12th minute. Thiago Almada and Saba Lobjanidze played passes in the box that eventually made its way to Giorgos Giakoumakis. The big Greek striker tapped it in for his 16th of the season to make it 1-0.
Cincinnati returned the favor in the 25th minute. Alvas Powell played a cross into the box, finding a streaking Badji for his fifth goal of the season and FCC’s 200th regular-season goal as an MLS club.
The flow of the game bounced back and forth over the next 20 minutes. Giakoumakis pounced on an Almada cross from the right to make it 2-1, only for Cincinnati to again knot the score late in the first half. Alvaro Barreal sent a right-footed cross into the box, only for Acosta to score his first header of the season at the death of the first half.
Lucho’s 17th goal of the regular season made it 2-2 at halftime.
With the second half promising to display more of the first-half’s dynamite, the match surprisingly swung on a mindless yellow card. Almada kicked at Yerson Mosquera’s foot in the Cincinnati box in the 51st minute, only for Mosquera to fall and for the action to be caught by the referee. Almada’s second yellow card of the night sent Atlanta to 10 men for the next 40 minutes.
While Cincinnati tested its offensive power to find a winner, much of the second half turned into Atlanta flexing its defense and delay tactics. Cincinnati’s best opportunity came in the 62nd minute, only for Badji’s header to bullet directly at goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
The draw for FCC gives them 69 points for the 2023 season, nine more points than they gathered in their first three MLS seasons combined. However, the team knows there is more competition to come in the postseason.
“It should feel like more pressure,” Noonan said when asked about the chances at a double before the looming playoffs. “When you’ve won a trophy already, people and teams will look at that and say the expectations are to go do it again. That’s our expectation in our pursuit of winning another trophy. It should feel a little different, and that’s okay, and these guys have stepped up all year. I’m looking forward to the aftermath of this game and just trying to look at some things that we know can better prepare us to perform better and get a good result, a win, in the first game of that first round.”
The locker room was generally still in a competitive mode afterwards.
“It’s been hard all year—no game is easy,“ Powell said post-match. “Everybody that comes into here to play against Cincinnati is always going to be a fighter, that’s all. We need to continue to do what we’ve done all season and stick together, no matter what.”
Much more of the drama appeared to be from off the field, as New York Red Bulls needed a late John Tolkin penalty kick to best Nashville SC 1-0 and Charlotte FC edged Inter Miami 1-0 at home. Both teams will face each other with the opportunity to take on FC Cincinnati in the next round. The Orange & Blue will await their opponent and likely play the first of a best-of-3 matchup next weekend. Tickets will go on sale Monday, October 23rd.
Atlanta, on the other hand, will head to Columbus to play the Crew in the first round as the #6 seed. They will unfortunately be without Almada, as red-card suspensions from Decision Day apply to the first postseason match.
Match 34 – FC Cincinnati vs. Atlanta United
TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, OH
Result: FC Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 2.
FC Cincinnati Starting XI (5-3-2):
Roman Celentano (GK); Alvas Powell (Bret Halsey 71’), Yerson Mosquera, Matt Miazga (Nick Hagglund 90+7’), Ian Murphy (Malik Pinto 90’), Alvaro Barreal; Junior Moreno (Yuya Kubo 46’), Luciano Acosta (c), Obinna Nwobodo; Dominique Badji (Sergio Santos 71’), Brandon Vazquez.
Bench: Alec Kann, Marco Angulo, Ray Gaddis, Gerardo Valenzuela.
Atlanta United Starting XI (4-2-3-1):
Brad Guzan (GK – c); Ronald Hernandez, Luis Abram, Miles Robinson, Caleb Wiley (Brooks Lennon 90’); Tristan Muyumba (Juan Jose Purata 90’), Mattheus Rossetto; Saba Lobjanidze (Edwin Mosquera 63’), Thiago Almada, Xande Silva (Jay Fortune 75’); Giorgos Giakoumakis (Jamal Thiare 75’).
Bench: Quentin Westberg, Amar Sejdic, Derrick Etienne Jr., Miguel Berry.
ATL – Giorgos Giakoumakis 12’ (Lobjanidze)
CIN – Dom Badji 25’ (Powell)
ATL – Giorgos Giakoumakis 32’ (Almada)
CIN – Luciano Acosta 45+2’ (Barreal)
YC – Thiago Almada 36’ (ATL, foul)
YC (RC) – Thiago Almada 51’ (ATL, foul)
YC – Matt Miazga 73’ (CIN, foul)
YC – Jamal Thiare 86’ (ATL, foul)
MLS Cup playoffs, 1st round, T.B.D. (TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, OH)