It was a first for many. Head coach Pat Noonan described it as a unique situation.
All it took was a Brandon Vazquez hat-trick, the first of his career, and a 15-hour delay extending over two days for FC Cincinnati to advance to the knockout stage of Leagues Cup with a 3-1 win over Chivas Guadalajara Friday afternoon at TQL Stadium.
“A little unconventional in how this one played out,” Noonan said of the match after its conclusion Friday afternoon. “But I’m really pleased with the performance over the course of the two days from our group against a very strong opponent. I thought the guys did a lot of things really well.”
On Thursday night, before severe weather suspended the match, FC Cincinnati jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first eight minutes on the strength of a brace from Vazquez. His first goal was created from a moment of individual brilliance, dribbling around two defenders, then curling a shot from outside the box past a third defender and the goalkeeper. His next strike came six minutes later on a centering pass from Álvaro Barreal.
“We were really up for it,” defender Matt Miazga said of the strong start. “We knew that this was a big game. We knew that they were a very good team. They’re top of the league in Mexico, and we’re top league in (MLS) so we knew that we had to defend our fortress. We got off to a great start … then the momentum just carried us forward.
“I think just everything about last night’s start – the intensity, the passing, the running, the communication – all kind of came together. That was one of our better (halfs) of the year.”
The first half would end 2-0, but just before the whistle blew, Chivas defender Gilberto Sepúlveda was shown a red card (initially ruled yellow) for dragging down Aaron Boupendza just outside the box, impeding a goal–scoring opportunity.
Then the weather turned for the worst. First, a light rain began to fall and grew into a heavy storm over the first 15 minutes of the second half until it was too much.
In the 60th minute, at approximately 9:25 p.m., the game was delayed due to severe weather in the area, specifically due to lightning near the stadium. After nearly four hours of delay that included over 6,000 lightning strikes within an eight-mile radius of TQL Stadium, the match would be suspended for the following afternoon.
Play resumed Friday at 2 p.m., making it the longest delay in club history after nearly 18.5 hours between the opening and closing whistle.
“That’s the first time that’s happened in my career,” Miazga said of the uniqueness of the match. “I understand it’s a difficult situation for everybody, but it is obviously not ideal for players.
“And for (fans) in general, having waited for hours then having to go to work the next day … but we got the job done and are advancing.”
Another wrinkle to the suspension of play was that the restart wouldn’t come until the next day behind closed doors and without fans in attendance to safely finish the match. Only a small number of staff, players, family members and media were on hand to see the completion, making it feel vaguely similar to the days of no-fans in the stands due to Covid protocols.
The oddness of the restart left me envisioning how, or in what manner, the game would continue. FC Cincinnati had been the dominant side in the first 60 minutes and would be playing a man-up.
But Chivas had nothing to lose and came out with a bang, scoring immediately as play resumed on Friday off a long throw-in from the exact spot where the match was halted the day before. The pass sailed over the FC Cincinnati defense and found just enough of Antonio Briseño’s head to glide past FCC goalkeeper Alec Kann’s outstretched hands and into the back of the net.
The goal halved the lead FCC had built just seconds into the restart.
“I don’t want to give anybody an out on that (play) because we had just addressed the fact that play is going to be restarted in our defensive third, and they have a couple of guys that have long throws, so we’re likely going to have to defend the box,” Noonan said of the moment that led to Chivas’ goal. “We just didn’t do it well enough.
“Aside from that, I think it was one of our strongest performances. … It was new to all of us, and they embraced that, and we were ready to play.”
That would be the only goal Chivas scored, though, as The Orange and Blue returned to form and battled for the remaining 30 minutes, even grabbing an insurance goal to rebuild their two-goal lead again, thanks to Vazquez. With his third goal, Vazquez became the second player in club history to earn a hat-trick.
“I think we just kept our composure and didn’t get too complacent,” Miazga said of FCC’s performance after allowing the first goal on the restart. “We were right on the ball, kept moving around and hit them with daggers. I think that was the most important thing, staying composed and not getting too complacent.”
The return to play was one that FC Cincinnati players indicated was more challenging mentally than physically. While the delay Thursday night was draining, players found their own ways of passing the time and staying prepared. But when the suspension came down, and no more soccer would be played that night, the switch to preparation for the next day was strange and unusual.
“It’s trying to go to sleep, get the best sleep you possibly can and show up like it’s a 30-minute game,” defender Nick Hagglund said of the approach to the overnight wait. “Recover and get ready for whatever’s next to mentally get back and prepare.”
“It’s hard to wait that long. You have to try to make sure you’re ready,” Miazga said of the challenges the delay had, but added that physically the stress on the body wasn’t overwhelming. “I can only speak for myself, but I felt fine. I think 60 minutes is all right. If it had got up to 75-80 minutes, you’d get more tired … but we had the (half-time break Thursday night) to get your second wind. So it wasn’t that taxing.”
Noonan indicated postgame that his biggest concern entering the second day of play was the players’ health. In a typical matchday scenario, the day after the game is an opportunity to rest, revitalize and assess places for treatment or care. Still, in this case, those options were unavailable.
“To ask guys to come back out and compete when it’s 95 degrees, that’s difficult,” Noonan said. “So a lot of the morning conversations revolved around seeing how everybody comes in and if we need to make any adjustments (to account for health).
“Really the concern is just the health of the players and the well-being of the players so that you can get through (the game) without injury.”
Three players were specifically identified as needing consideration due to what Noonan called “knocks.” Boupendza, who was subbed out at the first possible opportunity in the second half (and who Noonan mentioned would have been subbed out after the delay Thursday night, if that choice was possible), defender Ray Gaddis and Luciano Acosta, who were both substituted in the 89th minute.
Preparation the key to victory
The keys to success for FC Cincinnati were maintaining routine and strong preparation in the days leading into the interleague matchup.
While Vazquez started the match for FC Cincinnati, he was not scheduled to, and just five minutes before kickoff, he replaced Sergio Santos in the lineup.
After feeling discomfort in his calf on the last shot of warm-ups, Santos was removed as a precaution. With the starters marching onto the field, Vazquez continued to warm up, only joining his squad at the last minute to maximize his time.
“It was a little weird, but I was prepared for it,” the 24-year-old striker said of his quick warm-up. “I always prepare for games the same way whether I’m starting or not, eating the same meals, getting good sleep, resting up. But I only found out I was starting five minutes before kickoff, so I had to throw the shin guards on, throw the jersey on, and go outside and start doing sprints.”
“He can never warm-up with the team again,” Hagglund joked in his postgame media scrum. “We just have to keep his starting spot under wraps.”
Hagglund, who played all 90 minutes across two days, said he felt like the performance from Vazquez was earned, considering the work and preparation he had done in the weeks leading up to the match.
“He’s been knocking on the door,” Haggulund said. “You could see this coming. … I’m really happy for him. Three great goals.”
“It was one (Vazquez’s) strongest games,” Noonan said of his striker's performance. “For him to be able to switch gears on short notice and perform like that … it speaks to his character and being ready. He was outstanding.”
With four goals in two Leagues Cup games, Vazquez is tied for first in goal scoring in the tournament.