The season is long and the engine has to turn off at some point. As much as FC Cincinnati’s dream season flourished and energized the season, it had to end in either glory or sadness.
In this case, it ended in heartbreak that may take some time to heal.
FC Cincinnati leaped out to an early 2-0 lead by halftime, only for Columbus Crew SC to flip “the most dangerous lead in football” on its head. A Christian Ramirez goal took down the Supporters’ Shield holders in extra time and the 3-2 victory will send Columbus to the MLS Cup finals.
The Orange & Blue came into the match after a hard-earned 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union in the conference semifinals, while the Crew upended Orlando City SC 2-0 in extra time. Both teams came in with a victory over the other this season and both knew a win over their in-state rivals would keep the MLS Cup Finals in Ohio.
FC Cincinnati played a lineup similar to the win over Philadelphia. Center back Matt Miazga served the first of this additional three-match suspension, forcing Alvas Powell into the back line again. Santiago Arias replaced Ray Gaddis in the right-back position. Obinna Nwobodo started on the bench in this game after completely missing the Philadelphia match.
Columbus came into the match with no changes to the Starting XI. Midseason transfer pick-up Julian Gressel started on the bench, but would later factor into the match.
Much of the initial play resembled the pattern from the first two seasonal matchups. Columbus possessed the ball at a 70/30 click, while Cincinnati opted to strike on the counter.
Scoring in the first half of the match may have felt familiar. In the 14th minute, Columbus midfielder Mo Farsi lost possession from a pressure by Aaron Boupendza. The Gabonese striker pounded a pass into the box for Brandon Vazquez, who threaded a left-footed shot past Patrick Schulte. Vazquez’s first goal of the playoffs made it 1-0.
While Columbus maintained possession in the first half, shots were controlled. The biggest threat came from a Cucho Hernandez one-timer in the 36th minute, only for Roman Celentano to punch the shot away. Celentano finished with five saves over the evening.
It also needs to be said how many times Alvas Powell saved FCC in the first half. That was headlined by a goal-line clearance in the early stages of the first half, as Celentano saved a shot and the ensuing scramble led to a shot that was sure to go in, except Powell saved it off the line with a header.
In the dying embers of the first half, FCC was gifted a free kick in the 45th minute with a foul on a streaking Vazquez. Alvaro Barreal slipped the first touch to Luciano Acosta, who laced a shot past all defenders and into the back of the net.
Acosta’s second goal of the playoffs made it 2-0 at the halftime whistle.
While Columbus was down early, they held much of the possession (66/34) and shot opportunities (11/5) in the first half.
FCC had its opportunities to ice things in the second half, but was unable to pad the lead. Its best opportunity came in the 52nd minute when Boupendza fired a shot to Schulte’s right, but the Columbus goalkeeper got a finger on it for a corner kick.
Boupendza would have more opportunities in the next twenty minutes, only for one goal to be called off for a handball and another to be called off for offside.
The Crew’s fortunes changed when head coach Wilfried Nancy opted to play Gressel for the first time in three matches. In the 75th minute, Gressel possessed on the right side and crossed to Christian Ramirez in the box. Celentano and Powell were both unable to handle the deflected shot, leading to an own goal by Powell, trimming the lead to 2-1.
The lead finally dissolved in the 86th minute. Diego Rossi and Ramirez fed Cucho in the box, only for the deflections to pop back to Rossi. His second goal of the playoffs tied the match at 2-2, going into added extra time.
The tide finally turned late in the second half of extra time. Substitute Kevin Molino sent a cross to Cucho in the box in the 115th minute. The Colombian striker popped a header to Ramirez in front of the net to bury the goal and FCC’s shot at the MLS Cup.
The final five minutes played out with FC Cincinnati unable to find a final shot. The Orange & Blue finish the season a step short of the MLS Cup final, while Columbus returns to the final for the fourth time in team existence and the first time since winning the MLS Cup in 2020.
The team was visibly crushed at the final whistle, but head coach Pat Noonan spoke glowingly of the season in general.
“Blame none of those players,” Noonan said. “They gave everything, and I’m proud of them for that. I’m disappointed for them, for everything they put into this season, to be able to position ourselves to play in the Cup final, and certainly with the score line. I’ll take a look at myself first and see how I learned from this and how we can get this right in the future.”
Noonan felt this team still has a winning mentality for the future.
“I don’t think a whole lot needs to change. We’ve shown improvements and progress in this particular year that were better than 2022,” he said. “I think the group—and hopefully a large majority are returning, and I think they will—understands now what it looks like to win and to expect to win and have the pressure to win, which is a good thing. It’s never easy to have consistency to do that in this league, but I think we have the group to do that.”
Acosta’s words were just as measured and hopeful.
“I’ll remember everything that we fought for this season,” Acosta said afterwards through a translator. “We were out there fighting. Every minute, up until the last minute, this team was out there fighting. The way they represented this team, this fanbase, we’re very proud.”
While Columbus hosts the MLS Cup against LAFC on December 9th, FC Cincinnati now decompresses for the next season. The team will participate in the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2024, but roster decisions and transfers will need to be considered in the months leading up to the international tournament.
MLS Cup Eastern Conference Finals – FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew SC
TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, OH
Result: Columbus Crew SC 3, FC Cincinnati 2.
FC Cincinnati Starting XI (5-3-2):
Roman Celentano (GK); Santiago Arias (Ray Gaddis 65’), Alvas Powell, Yerson Mosquera, Ian Murphy, Alvaro Barreal; Yuya Kubo (Obinna Nwobodo 85’), Luciano Acosta (c), Junior Moreno (Marco Angulo 106’); Brandon Vazquez (Sergio Santos 106’), Aaron Boupendza (Dom Badji 73’).
Bench: Alec Kann, Malik Pinto, Bret Halsey, Gerardo Valenzuela.
Columbus Crew SC Starting XI (3-4-2-1):
Patrick Schulte (GK); Steven Moreira, Rudy Camacho (Yevgen Cheberko 91’), Malte Amundsen; Mohammed Farsi (Julian Gressel 65’), Darlington Nagbe (c), Aidan Morris (Christian Ramirez 65’), Yaw Yeboah (Sean Zawadzki 76’); Alexandru Matan (Kevin Molino 111’), Diego Rossi; Cucho Hernandez.
Bench: Evan Bush, Jacen Russell-Rowe, Max Arftsen, Jimmy Medranda.
CIN – Brandon Vazques 14’ (Boupendza)
CIN – Luciano Acosta 45+3’ (Barreal)
CLB – Alvas Powell 75’ (own goal)
CLB – Diego Rossi 86’ (unassisted)
CLB – Christian Ramirez 115’ (Hernandez)
YC – Steven Moreira 45+2’ (CLB, foul)
YC – Luciano Acosta 73’ (CIN, foul)
YC – Dom Badji 82’ (CIN, foul)
YC – Brandon Vazquez 99’ (CIN, foul)
YC – Yerson Mosquera 111’ (CIN, foul)
YC – Julian Gressel 120+1’ (CLB, foul)